Professor Roy Ramphal, academic director (acting) at the Unisa Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL) and the national president of the Southern African Society for Quality (SASQ), discusses the compelling reasons for today’s corporations to urgently define who undertakes their quality management.

Organisations that compete in complex and tumultuous economies still believe that quality remains an important aspect of competitiveness. The conditions for managing quality, however, grow more difficult as organisations strive to meet customer and societal requirements in a fast, global and demanding environment while at the same time delivering value to shareholders. Yet the quest for quality may be nothing short of lip-service if the ability, capability, effectiveness and efficiency of the quality manager is not monitored.

When there is a failure of quality management, the results can be disastrous for both the company and the public that consume or use products in good faith. Consumers might endure pain and suffering, injury or even death. Companies could lose millions in earnings through having to fend off lawsuits as well as suffering irreparable damage to their brand. One need look no further than major South African corporations such as Ford South Africa and Tiger Brands to see the gravity of quality management failure. Yet seldom is the quality manager held responsible – or criminally charged – for such losses.

Ford’s 4556 Kuga 1.6-litre Ecoboost model, produced from December 2012 to February 2014, was recalled in January 2017 following several reports of the SUV bursting into flames. A further safety recall was announced in August of that year, which was the third recall in eight months. The reason for the safety recall was to address a potential fire hazard in the form of insulation material fitted near the SUV’s front seat-belts which could catch fire in the event of a crash.

The recall was well-founded as a driver had been killed in car crash in December 2015 as a result of this flaw with reports of a further 64 cars having caught fire after that. Today Kuga owners no longer trust the brand and are demanding that Ford remove its entire Kuga range from the country’s roads and reimburse drivers. In addition, the National Consumer Commission (NCC) has said that it will be approaching the Consumer Tribunal to prosecute the company over its contravention of several sections of the Consumer Protection Act.

Another significant quality management failure was suffered by Tiger Brands last year due to the outbreak of listeriosis from the listeria bacteria (the largest outbreak in the world, according to the World Health Organisation) which was traced to Enterprise Foods factories. Killing more than 200 people and infecting 1000 more, this quality management failure has led to a class action lawsuit and contributed to diminished financial results (revenue declining by 52% to R1,1-billion, with an operating loss of R252-million for the 2018 year-end).

To me the question is, where was the quality manager in each of the abovementioned examples? Quality failures can harm society, damage lives and cost billions. Despite the obvious risks that poor quality management can play in corporations, the issue of how quality management is implemented and continually organised is not clearly articulated, nor who should be driving it.

Whose job is it anyway?

It seems unclear as to exactly where the responsibility should lie for ensuring quality. Should it lie with a specific quality manager or elsewhere in the company? Should the quality manager report to business management or financial management (the latter option driven by the fact that organisations are measured on financial results rather than on the quality of processes)?

There is a view that as society becomes increasingly dependent on technological systems to support daily activities, there will be an increasing need for dedicated quality managers to ensure the optimal performance of products and services. An opposing position is that extraordinary levels of quality will be regarded as an implicit factor in the company’s offering with quality managed by all departments, thus nullifying the need for a discrete quality manager.

Research indicates that quality managers of the future should possess strong business acumen combined with an ability to build a customer-centric approach into the entire fabric of the organisation, and be adept at driving quality by leveraging customised business models.

Quality managers must have in-depth and up-to-date knowledge, skills and tools to be effective and efficient in the quality field. Yet does management recognise this issue or is it taken for granted that the quality manager is always competent to do the job?

A common ground between doctors and quality managers

In attempting to tease out a specific job and profile of quality managers in the South African business context, research has been conducted to test and evaluate the similarities between the job of a quality manager to that of a medical doctor. The analogy has been created due to some interesting similarities between these two jobs in terms of the process of detection, localisation and remediation that both must follow.

As a doctor would diagnose and offer treatment options to the patient, so too does the quality manager diagnose organisational problems and suggest the path of treatment. Academics Defeo and Barnard (2004) have described organisations in terms of ‘entropy’ which is the living tendency of all living things (including organisations) to head towards their own extinction. Negative entropy consists of countermeasures that living systems take on in order to keep away from extinction. Organisms, for example, replace ageing cells, heal wounds and fight diseases. Similarly organisations build up reserves of energy by acquiring more energy (more sales and resources) and fight competition.

Doctors monitor and provide general care to humans. They talk to their patients to access medical history and conditions. Following evaluation of symptoms they run tests to determine what is wrong with a patient. If the diagnosis is not clear it is their responsibility to do the necessary research. They must understand medicine and its interactions with other medicines in order to correctly prescribe this, be able to offer the patient preventative solutions, and undertake specialist investigations and operations.

Quality mangers monitor and provide general care to systems and processes and talk to those involved with the process such as operators and controllers. The quality manager might isolate inefficient processes followed by investigations and corrective actions. Quality managers are expected to evaluate indications of quality problems (such as customer complaints) and diagnose the actual causes with the various quality tools.

If the cause or solutions cannot be determined then necessary research must be conducted. Furthermore, quality managers must be able to prescribe and implement a quality solution and know how different tools of quality and different technologies interact with one another. A quality manager must also know how to implement corrective actions under the current conditions, as well as to advise and implement preventative action.

Despite very similar processes, the research highlights a key point of departure between these two professions when considering the medical practitioner’s qualification, training and professional commitment compared to that of the quality manager – the organisational doctor. Doctors have comprehensive and well-structured university level education programmes followed by ‘in- service’ (interning) training programmes.

Additionally, the doctor must undergo a final competency-based assessment before practising and is required by law to register with a professional body and participate in continual professional development programmes.

Most quality managers have postgraduate qualifications and can acquire specific quality knowledge by attending formal or informal education programmes. In South Africa there is only one formal university programme in quality management and this is offered at a postgraduate level. Informal programmes are generally held over a few days as part of a full-time class and are presented by trainers who have relevant quality management experience but may lack academic exposure. The challenge for the quality manager is to ensure that they have the correct academic qualifications and in addition acquire training from credible presenters and training organisations.

For quality managers there are just two private professional associations that are by necessity self-funded. These are the Southern African Society for Quality (SASQ) which is able to assist companies in the evaluation and development of quality practitioners, and the Southern African Auditor and Training Certification Authority (SAATCA – for management system auditors).

While not mandatory, it is necessary for quality managers join associations to build up their professional development and remain updated with new quality tools, ISO standards or technologies.

But the responsibility also falls to directors and owners of organisations to critically examine the professional status, competency levels, effectiveness and efficiency of the quality manager, and encourage their continual development to ensure they remain up-to-speed with relevant means of quality management.

Would a company employ a non-certified engineer, or a patient allow an untrained doctor to operate on them? Certainly not. Similarly, companies should ensure that quality management is the ambit of quality practitioners that through their professional status, knowledge and competence are the exceptional ‘doctors’ tending to the organisation.