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Once a critical part of the manufacturing process and still a major part of transactional processes for the past two decades

Once a critical part of the manufacturing process and still a major part of transactional processes for the past two decades, the quality function is now at a crossroads, according to a report (A Leadership Prescription for the Future of Quality, Report #1443), by The Conference Board Quality Council.

Through interviews with quality and business leaders, surveys, and personal experiences, the council cites the changes needed for stronger alignment to CEO challenges. The Conference Board Quality Council comprises executives of companies known to be leaders in performance excellence and quality.

The good news is that many companies have already moved the quality professional from the back end of managing the production process to the front end, including understanding the customer.

"The role of the quality officer is evolving," says Mike Adams, vice president, quality, Allegheny Energy, Inc. "While many still have their roles seen as cost reduction by implementing defect and waste reduction strategies and continuous improvement efforts around satisfying customers, a growing number view themselves as a macro-leader, directly connecting their quality practices to top-line growth along with business trends of globalization, customer sophistication, talent management, environmental concerns and social responsibility that influence or impact business performance."

A Conference Board Quality Council survey reflects that in many cases quality is only "somewhat aligned and influential" when addressing CEO and business challenges. This highlights the gap between what quality professionals know they can offer the C-Suite and what the C-Suite expects of them. There is clearly room for an opportunity to seize, according to the report.

An organization's quality leader can add tremendous value in this time of severe budget cutbacks by committing to strengthen and build customer intelligence, improve operational excellence, systems thinking, speed to market, and build the next generation of customer advocates. To address these challenges-even more critical in a downturn-quality practitioners need to draw on their practical use of established tools, techniques, and practices.

These quality practices can help corporations avoid such common pitfalls as emphasizing process over results; misaligning limited resources by working on lower-value items; diluting key measures that drive action aligned to bottom-line results; implementing measures that drive conflicting or bad behavior; delegating quality leadership to departments, leading to lack of responsibility; acting as if quality is a destination rather than a sustaining, cultural norm; dismissing past knowledge versus evolving lessons learned into continuous improvement and deploying quality without context and expectations.