Corporate Culture on Quality Starts at the Top – A Small Anecdote on Organizational Blindness

Six Forks
Notice something?

Quality starts at the top with management. Top executives like to talk about quality, but employees below usually know very well if the manager only talks the talk or also walks the walk. Words are cheap. Quality (and pretty much everything else that is important) requires attention by management.

Of course, the CEO cannot check everything himself. However, he surely can observe and sample. Many managers seem to have forgotten how to look, and instead rely purely on whatever their subordinates tell them. They need to know how to look and how to see. I wrote a sarcastic post on this topic before (How to Misguide Your Visitor – or What Not to Pay Attention to During a Plant Visit!), but this topic is far from exhausted. This post now focuses on quality, based on a small anecdote of mine.

Small Anecdote on Quality

A few months back, I wandered into Elbenwald (literally Elfen Grove), a German store specializing in geeky t-shirts and accessories. I admit, I do have a fable for such geeky things, even though my current position as a professor does not really allow me to wear t-shirts (especially not the one with Gandalf saying “You shall not pass!” during exam periods).

Noticing a Flawed Product on Display

Harry Potter Misprint
Looking a bit off…
Harry Potter Misprint
Magical Double Vision

In any case I noticed that one of the Harry Potter t-shirts had a misprint. The t-shirt was printed more than once at an offset, leading to a blurred double picture – just like after having too many pints of Hog’s Head Brew.

Defects do happen. It should have been sorted out by quality control, but this one made it into the stores. However, it not only made it into the stores, it made it into the display of the store! The store was advertising its products using defective products. That should not have happened!

In any case, me being a nice geek, I indicated the problem to the sales staff. My expectation was that they would fix the mistake post haste.

Yeah, right.

Still Noticing the Flawed Product on Display Two Months Later …

Two moths later, I walked past the store again and decided to have a look. There was the very same t-shirt, with the very same misprint, in the very same spot as before. Nothing had happened! In two months! The store staff did not notice, the store manager did not notice, and upper management did not notice or did not visit either. In two months! Even me pointing it out made no difference.

Clearly, this needed to be escalated. While it was not my business, as a lean expert I cannot help but to poke my finger at such things.  Hence I looked up the CEO on the web and sent him an email describing the problem with the t-shirt in particular and the corporate culture on quality in general.

Escalation to the CEO Works …

I received a very nice email back, grateful for the help. The CEO also talked about the difficulties in changing the corporate culture. I can only imagine the events behind the scene that my email started. (Actually, I have seen the action following similar customers’ emails to the CEOs in other companies. If you want to get things done quickly, an email to the CEO is not the worst thing you can do.)

Harry Potter Misprint
Pretty again!

In any case, after visiting the store again a few days later, the problem was fixed. The flawed t-shirt was exchanged with a proper one.

The question remains: Why does it need the repeated input of an external customer over many months (even if it is a nagging lean geek like me) to fix something that should have been bleeding obvious to everybody in the store?

Quality Starts at the Top

The CEO pointed out how they did trainings, how they tried to get their employees to also see the store as a customer, and their fight against organizational blindness.

He did not point out why he or his other top executives did not see it. So why did they not see it? There are two reasons I can imagine:

  1. The top executives did not visit the store within two months.
  2. (One of) the top executives visited, but did not see the problem in plain sight.

It was a small chain with approximately ten stores, hence we can assume (or hope) that at least one of the top executives would visit the store within a two-month period. I believe that one of the top executives visited but failed to see the problem. If they did not see it, then it was a clear message to the employees that this was not important. The problem of organizational blindness usually starts at the top.

To be fair, it is difficult not to succumb to organizational blindness. If you are new in a job, you see all the problems. The longer you stay, the more normal all the problems become. I find that the first six months are the easiest to spot problems. After that, the vision becomes more cloudy, and after three years everything is just as normal as it has always been.

In this particular case, the CEO was in his position for more than ten years. It seems he overall did well, as the business not only prospered but also expanded significantly throughout this time. Yet, after ten years in the job, it is hard not to succumb to organizational blindness.

How to Fight Organizational Blindness – Especially on Quality – Especially for Top Executives

Organizational blindness is habit taking over awareness. The key against organizational blindness is to break these habits.I believe there are a few simple steps that can help.

Go and See!

Go to the shop floor/sales floor/warehouse or wherever your action is. As we say in lean lingo: Genchi Genbutsu, Japanese for “go and see.” Do not simply rely on reports and numbers, since your subordinates will tell you only what makes them look good. Rarely is a CEO told what went wrong. Instead, go to see the real action.

When You are There, Focus and Actually See!

Once you are at the site of the action, you actually have to see. This is easier said than done. Of course, you should also see your people, but the purpose of your visit is not only to socialize. Also look at the goods, equipment, tools, etc.

Frankly, a plant tour (or site tour) is usually not helpful, since there is too much to see and you end up seeing nothing. (This is sometimes done intentionally by middle management, see How to Misguide Your Visitor – or What Not to Pay Attention to During a Plant Visit! for details.)

Instead, focus on a few core points. I have developed a Lean Shop Floor Visit Checklist – Top 4 Things to Watch in the Factory for general visits. If you are particularly interested in quality, there are some other things you can focus on. Again, do not try to see everything, but focus on your point of interest (i.e., if you look at quality, do not look at productivity and inventory at the same time). If possible, also spend more time in one spot rather than a little time everywhere. Related to quality here are a few suggestions you could watch:

  • General quality of the goods – Do they look good, are they in proper order, etc.?
  • Storage of the goods – Are they stored properly, are they dirty, do the storage facilities look clean, etc.?
  • Handling – Are the goods treated carefully, or are they kicked around? Do the employees respect the products for the customer?
  • Machines and equipment – Is everything in order, are the machines maintained? Is oil dripping, are the machines dirty, or out of alignment, etc.?
  • Overall Cleanliness – While overall cleanliness by itself is not the most important thing to watch, a messy area hints at more problems that are harder to see.

When You Have Seen Something, Use the Chain of Command!

If you have seen something (and chances are you will if you look close enough), you have to decide if you tell the next best employee to fix it, or if you use the chain of command. (In fact, if you are particularly bent on educating your employees, you may even tell them that you have seen something in a particular area and ask them if they see it too. They may end up seeing more things than you.)  If it is a critical problem that needs fixing right away, tell the closes employee or supervisor. However, this is probably only a temporary quick fix.

In any case, you need to use your hierarchy. Using the chain of command helps you to achieve a faster change of the corporate culture. So get your direct subordinate responsible for the area and inform him of the problem (chewing out optional depending on your personality and the frequency of such problems).

Go for Permanent Solutions – But Don’t Solve It Yourself!

Important: Do not simply tell him to fix it! A fix is usually a quick fix, and the problem will pop up again soon. Go for a long-term solution. Do not give specific solutions! Your time and capacity is too valuable for this. Besides, it will train your employees to let you do all the thinking, a sure receipt for failure. This is not because you can’t think but because there is simply too much to think about. Plus, you may be good, but you are not an expert in everything, and your well-intended solution may just make things worse.

Hence demand a permanent solution, but let your employees decide how. If you have multiple levels of management below you, make sure that the appropriate level finds the solution. Your direct subordinate may also be the wrong person to fix the problem, for the same reasons you are. Have the chain of command report back to you after an appropriate time. If possible, check the same issue again next time you are around (and have a serious chewing out ready if the same problem happens again).

Doing this frequently in many different locations and departments will help you to achieve a corporate culture for quality, even though it is still a enormous task especially for larger corporations. Again, use your chain of command! Ideally, your subordinate managers will also adapt a similar approach to quality. Keep up the pressure, and good luck! Now go out and Improve your Industry!


I informed the CEO about this post, and got a very positive reaction. He also asked me to add the links to his website Elbenwald, which are now included in the post.

The Harry Potter Pictures are most likely copyrighted by Warner Bros. I claim fair use for the low-resolution photos of the t-Shirts to illustrate the quality issues and comparison with a flawless shirt..

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