Not long ago, establishing quality procedures was at the core of a company’s managerial dynamics. Few could escape quality circles, ISO standards, or implementing processes that advocated the “right way” of getting things done in order to improve efficiency. Everything was about streamlining practices to improve productivity and quality but also about uniting the members of the company around the idea of the proper way to work and provide service. Through such efforts, companies would gain competitiveness and margin points and they would take the lead over others.
Quality management is a powerful management tool. It gathers the staff around a clear and virtuous purpose: doing better what we were already doing well. It reassures customers, who, informed about the company’s virtue, trust it. Yet it is performing only if all competitors live in a given context: a strictly similar one. If all firms face the same constraints, then the competition is fair.
The arrival of “emerging markets”, with lower production costs, has shattered all the management reflexes born from quality processes. For many companies now, doing better what they can already do well is useless: they are not as competitive today as their competitors from Asia, India or elsewhere.
Some Western companies have pushed so far quality policies, and with such unwavering conviction, that they have hampered and prevented capacity to mutate. Quality has become a drag by dint of claiming that without the process there was no salvation !
For a time, their captains claimed that never would the Chinese and the “others” be able to produce the same quality. There is no denying now that they were wrong: our markets are swarming with products coming from countries with low production costs, which are of comparable quality to those we produce in Western countries. This condescension simply stresses the arrogance of Western economies.
In a global world where industrial paradigms have been shattered to pieces, where balance is challenged, the industrial and business processes need to be reconsidered incessantly, at the risk of seeing structures shrivel up and rust, incapable of adapting, dying ultimately.
Quality must adapt perpetually and make room for the ability to get out of established processes, to innovate and to leave the paths already treaded to discover new ones.
It has never been as urgent to “free” companies as it is now. Companies must be restrained from all restrictions regarding their ability to innovate, to mutate and to change their job. In spite of that, of course, the point is not to drop quality but to shake loose from the restraints of the processes. The responsibility of employees must not be judged on the responsibility and observance of a given framework, but on the ability to reach beyond it. For many companies, ISO standards and the obligation to comply with them has become an obstacle to projection into the future and perspectives of growth. It even led some structures to a deadlock. These companies manufactured quality products, were confident about it, and died in a neat and orderly way.
The era of “total quality” was that of managers-administrators, who knew how to establish a rule, how to enforce it, how to control it, how to punish those who did not comply. Management was taught as if it were an exact science, with a techno-scientific logic. The era of the innovative company is that of entrepreneurs, those who risk, differ, deflect, can be wrong, do otherwise, those who use innovation to take decisive advantages over their competitors. Similarly, employees should also turn into entrepreneurs since they must gain responsibilities. Promoting initiatives, project groups, suggestion boxes… all these practices are well known and had sometimes disappeared, leaving place only to meeting specifications. These practices must be restored for good. Reporting lines, procedures must be left aside, the company must become a place of exchange and not constraints. The era of innovation is an era of design management, of the entrepreneur-designer. He is the one who gathers different skills around him and values the ideas of all to help them plan the future and see ahead.
The innovative firm is one that engages into a managerial approach by systematically questioning certainties. The question which must be central to any management practice in the troubled context that we live in now is: what else can I do with what I know how to do?
To banks designers say: “what if your downtown agencies were no longer banks?”, to automobile industries: “and if you did not produce cars any more?”, to hotels: “and if your rooms were meant for other things than sleeping”… There are as many innovation management seminars as companies and business sectors. This makes as many opportunities for each structure to project into other universes, with other methods, other approaches, emphasizing a cross-sectional approach. There is no doubt that design and designers have a capital management role in the era of innovation, because they give meaning and images to plans of the future and thus lessen the anguish of change.
To conclude and demonstrate of an original practice established by one of the largest design agencies in Quebec, which is particularly innovative: they reward every year the employee whose error, whose fault has the most helped the company to move forward. It is a great example of how to acknowledge risk-taking, an element inherent to any business.