ASQ Influential Voices: Selling Quality?


In this month's “ASQ Influential Voices” series, ASQ President Paul Borawski asked, “How Do You “Sell” Quality?,” particularly to senior execs and CEOs. Paul asks how we convince senior leaders that quality is essential to long term performance.

Through my attempts at taking a “Blog Break,” I'll keep this post short. I think if we're having to convince our CEO that quality matters, then our organization might be a lost cause and maybe it's time to find a new job. Yes, CEOs can learn and adapt (Dr. John Toussaint's personal CEO lean transformation is noteworthy). But Toussaint already knew quality was critical. He gained new insights from Lean and learned to take a new leadership role in his behaviors and time allocation — to truly lead quality from the top, as Dr. Deming taught.

It begs the question: Can all senior leaders change?

Given the choice, I'd rather work with people like John Toussaint, Paul O'Neill, and Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's. Executives like them may or may not have a method, but they have the core understanding that you don't build a great organization by skimping on quality. The idea of “selling quality” seems about as silly as “selling safety.” If somebody became a CEO without realizing that we need to do all we can protect worker safety (and, in the case of hospitals, patient safety), it's possible they can't change. It might be too late.

If somebody has gotten to be CEO without having an appreciation for quality, we should maybe look at the root causes of how that happens. By “an appreciation for quality,” I don't necessarily mean formal Lean or Six Sigma training. I'm taking about the quality mindsets — such as the idea that better quality is the path to better financial performance over the long-term, as opposed to traditional MBA cost-cutting and short-term ROI thinking. How do we educate and influence people earlier in their careers? How do we get companies and boards to promote those who are quality minded, as opposed to being just cost minded (or just sales minded).

Some leaders can change their spots. But, some can't. I think you need to figure out what kind of senior leaders you are working with before you invest much time or personal energy or time into changing them. People have to choose to change. You can't necessarily make them realize quality is important if the first 30 or 40 years of their careers have led to too many bad mindsets, habits, or practices.

Disclaimer: I'm part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. To answer the question “How do you Sell quality?” the best way is to translate it to financials that appeal to senior leaders. Unfortunatly Wall Street and MBAs have reduced leading to a financial exercise instead of believing that by doing what’s best for our Customers, Patients and Employees, we’ll be successful meeting our long term financial commitments.
    The deeper question is “Should we have to Sell quality?”. I agree with you Mark, if we have to sell Safety and Quality, perhaps it time to move on. It’ll be tough slugging and the financials will always take precidence.

  2. My answer to the question of “can all leaders change?” is “no”. Most hard-charging CEOs have some narcissistic characteristics that helped them get to where they got to and these characteristics are not entirely undesirable. On the other hand, true narcissists are unable to change without psychotherapy. Much has been written on the subject of CEOs and narcissism and there are other negative aspects in addition to being unable to change.

  3. The reason CEO’s are failing to take Quality seriously is that the Quality Profession has not moved into the 21st Century. It is still focusing on the customer focused subset, LittleQ of Quality when the resource constrained future we are in needs to focus on the BigQ of Business Quality. Quality Defined as that which ‘maximises the essential value added to society that results from the creation,use and disposal of products and services, at decreasing Resource Intensity’. @TrailblazerBF

    See Redefining Quality and
    BigQ, Leading for Competetive Advantage

  4. Mark,

    You say, “I think you need to figure out what kind of senior leaders you are working with before you invest much time or personal energy or time into changing them. People have to choose to change.”

    If people have to choose to change, they first need to have the choice put before them. If you figure out what kind of leader you are working with before you invest too much time or energy, then aren’t you risking prejudging them and then not offering them that choice of another way of seeing things.

    The other aspect is that in the area that I work in, the public sector, if people just up and move organisations, then the public that is served by that organisation is left with the outdated leadership. That seems like giving up to easily if you are prejudging whether senior people are capable of change. As a consultant in the public sector I consider that I work for the public but I work via the hospital, council or government department that has hired me. If I move on when it gets a little difficult, then I am not letting the organisation down as much as I am letting down my real client, the general public.

    I owe it to the public that I serve to try my best with all senior management, regardless of their initial openness to change.



    • Rob-

      You’re right, I didn’t mean to say we should pre-judge people, including senior leaders. I probably should have said it can be a waste to put “too much time” into trying to help some want to change. With some, I think you can tell in a single meeting if there’s a level of arrogance and self-satisfaction that will prevent them from learning anything new or doing anything different. With others, yes, you give it a fair effort and give it your best… just don’t give too much.


  5. I’d add Gary Convis to the list of leaders who truly “get it” and have made a significant difference in the organizations they’ve led. His transformation and accomplishments, as profiled in The Toyota Way Lean Leadership (, are exemplary and prove that profitability and respect for people can truly go hand in hand.

    (Caveat: he did lead a layoff in his early days at Dana to stabilize the company and allow Lean thinking to take hold. If an artery is severed, we have to first stop the bleeding.)

    • Yes, I’ve learned a lot from Gary Convis and his writing and work. I love the story about how, when he was appointed plant manager at the Toyota Georgetown plant, he set up his primary office as a trailer in the middle of the shop floor. Yes, he had “earned” the fancy corner office, but he was engaged with people at the “gemba” in a very meaningful way. I like to constructively challenge healthcare senior leaders about how they can come to work every day and easily not ever see a patient. Convis made sure he was walking through the gemba every day, and I’m sure he wasn’t just superficially passing through.

  6. If only we could clone leaders like these. Today’s HBR blog, Why Great Leaders Are in Short Supply ( – registration required) let me scratching my head. “Yeah, yeah, yeah… so what do we DO about it?” I’m not willing to accept that just because the environment has changed, we have to accept lesser quality leaders. If we believe that, we’re doomed.

    • I guess this comes back to the “nature vs. nurture” debate. Are great leaders born or developed? Mr. Convis had great mentors when he joined Toyota, but I’m sure they hired him because he had a knack for Lean leadership and was open to learning and changing. John Toussaint at ThedaCare was open to learning and changing (and being coached and mentored by other CEOs).

      I think a lot of this has to be spread CEO to CEO (and I’m glad Toussaint is focused on this now).

      ThedaCare is also doing so much more than the average hospital for leadership development amongst their staff. Instead of being just thrown into a front-line supervisor role, they have a very intentional training and development (that goes beyond just Lean stuff… management and leadership 101 stuff).

      I think you have to select the right leaders and then have a plan for mentoring and developing them. The promise of just hiring the right leader from the outside is often overblown, I think. We’re rather hire the “right” person rather than develop folks.

      There was a VP I used to work under at my last manufacturing company who was maybe 35 and, after a year around him (or probably sooner than that), I wrote him off as a “lost cause” (and he was, ironically, over the Lean Six Sigma group… as a rotational assignment in his fast track). He’ll go far… but he’ll likely never adapt or become an effective quality leader, as he’s totally financially driven (and self driven, not in service to others). He already knew everything and didn’t want to learn from the very experienced former-Danaher director who was his direct report. I’m glad I’m not there anymore.

  7. Yes, there needs to be far more CEO-to-CEO mentoring than currently exists, in large part because strong CEOs are busy building Outstanding Organizations (pun intended! :-))

    As I said in my keynote at ASQ LSS last month, I refuse to believe that success with Lean hinges on strong leadership because, the fact remains, that there aren’t enough strong leaders to go around. We have to adapt to this reality and find ways for people “below” the CEO to successfully “mold” their leadership team. There’s too much hand-wringing going on in the improvement community. This is one of my new areas of emphasis – helping improvement pros learn how to manage up.

    • Karen:
      “Manage up”? …or maybe “teach up” as Dave Meier challenged me to think of it, once? (How about “mentor up” – that makes the irony pretty clear, doesn’t it?!)

      Either way, it’s a huge effort.

      If you view yourself as living at the point of that upside down pyramid, supporting and teaching the people closer to the front line where value is created, it’s tough to have a boss who isn’t supporting and mentoring you but, instead, is busy telling you what to do, being right, etc. Add to that trying to teach-up (or manage-up) to the boss… whew! There had better be a compelling mission at stake, or moving on looks pretty good.

      At the end of the day the board of directors (and ownership) are responsible for the CEO. Their view of the what the CEO should be will probably only change when they see/experience the success of a different model of behavior.

      • Oh Andrew – You caught me!! I slipped into old terminology without even realizing it. How deeply grooved those pesky neuropathways are! Thank you for pointing it out.

        Yes, teach, teach, teach… we’re all teachers. Both mentoring and coaching (if you assign a difference) are really just fancy words for teaching and supporting one’s development.

        That’s going to be my new phrase – “Teach up!” Love it.


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