Hail to the Chiefs

One day, I received a phone call from a former client who had just been promoted to a new position at his company. He told me that he was the newly minted “Chief Quality Officer” for the company, reporting to the Chief Operating Officer (the #2 position in the company). He was very excited and asked me to lunch to talk about future plans.

I remember thinking at the time that this company was way ahead of the curve, and getting serious about quality. It was a time when “Six Sigma”, Deming, and Juran were all the rage in the business world. Many American companies large and small were making serious efforts to improve the quality (perceived or real) of their products and services, and the consulting industry was only too happy to help. In short – we were busy.

When we met, he was clearly excited about the new opportunity, but at the same time, he was also apprehensive. He told me that after his appointment, he met with the COO to get his “marching orders” and set expectations.

“So what should I focus on?”, he asked the COO. “How do you think I should go about this?”

“Well, that is for you to sort out”, came the reply. “That’s why I put you in charge.”

Over lunch, we laid out a few ideas on next steps, budget requirements, etc. His request for resources was approved, and we were off and running. The next few months saw a frenzy of activity – identifying problems, setting up measures, forming quality teams, organizing training, and publishing an internal newsletter. We helped him get everything up and running and then stepped aside to let him and his team take the reins. I kept in touch from time to time to see how things were going.

At first, things went along pretty well, but after a while my client started to hear grumbling. Line managers began to complain that the training sessions were a drain on their time. “Most of this stuff we are already doing” was a frequent complaint. “This is taking valuable time away from the important things” (meaning important to me) was another.

Metrics became difficult to establish and timely and reliable data collection was almost impossible to achieve (see “Dashboard Fallacy”). Not only was it becoming difficult for my client to implement the agreed quality improvement programs, but he was unable to demonstrate the effect – good or bad – of his efforts. Of course, managers came up with and touted their own measures, some of which were perfectly appropriate, but many of which were clearly self-serving.

At one point, I asked a plant manager why he kept cancelling the quality training program for a group of workers in one of his shops. I pointed out that there was a corporate goal/commitment to make that happen. “Look”, he said, “Harry (my client) has his goals and I have mine. I don’t get promoted for meeting his goals and missing mine.”

Things struggled on for a while, but the situation did not change. Even a quality “pep talk” from the CEO did not reverse the tide. Then came the budget squeeze, and things started spiraling downward fast.

My client never became discouraged (or at least he never showed it), but eventually he took a position at another company in “line management”. Some months after that, I bumped into the COO who said to me, “damn shame Harry left. But, . . . I guess he wasn’t the right guy for the job after all.” Harry’s position was downgraded a few rungs and placed under the head of training in HR. Some programs went on, but they were quiet and unobtrusive.

In the years since, I have seen (or heard of) this story repeated many times in many different ways. One company promoted a very bright African American woman to the post of Chief Diversity Officer. In fairness, the company did make demonstrable progress in minority recruiting and other areas, but she often complained that the last time she saw the CEO was the day her promotion was announced. I think she lasted 2 years or so.

This illustrates a common practice: Whenever you have a problem, put someone in charge of it. If your customers complain about quality problems, or your plants are having safety issues, make someone “Chief” and the problem is solved. And if it is not, there is always a handy scapegoat. Leadership can always say they were committed and took action, but “got the wrong person”.

I have seen companies appoint a “Chief Creativity Officer” to boost idea generation, a “Chief Customer Officer” to “listen to the customer”, and even a “Chief Confidence Officer” for a purpose not entirely clear to me. Governments do this sort of thing often as well, although the person rarely gets a “Chief” in their title. New bureaucracies or “advocates” tend to crop up for all kinds of ills – child welfare, consumer safety, insurance fraud, you name it.

So from now on, I am assuming the title of “Chief Bull#$% Officer”, and my mission shall be to find and expose bull feces wherever it may be found. I only hope my budget doesn’t get slashed next year.

© QuakerSmith Capital, LLC June 2017 All rights reserved


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