Yesterday the ASQ (American Society for Quality) issued their Quarterly Quality Report for December 2008. If you haven’t read it already, I encourage you to take a look. Based on a survey of only 47 persons, you have to wonder about how far you can take the conclusions, but I found the findings helpful.

Over 75 percent of the respondents were seeing specific responses to the economic downturn. These include reduction in force, reduction in training efforts, a reduction in budget for quality activities, and backing away from quality initiatives. This was in line with what I expected.

I was surprised, however, to see that when presented with a list of negatives, 20% of these respondents wrote in more positive responses. These include:

a noticeably increased emphasis on quality, especially in the area of preventive action; an increase in continuous improvement activities designed to provide competitive advantage; concerted efforts not to cut back, but rather improve and add programs and take a sharper focus on quality now; and also an increased desire to use quality improvement activities to reduce expenses.

This seems to be what lead the authors to conclude:

Quality practitioners say that over the past year they were more likely to have more opportunity rather than less opportunity to become involved in business development activities (such as new product development, establishing business strategy, meeting with customers, and working with sales and marketing). Perhaps this means there is some hollowing out among the quality troops – fewer people and less budget – but not necessarily a shrinking in the size or ambitiousness of their quality programs in a strategic sense. They still have big ambitions, but they’re forced to do more with less.

The survey asked how the downturn is impacting what people are paying attention to. Not surprisingly, ‘Cost Cutting’ ranked at the top and ‘Growth Through Acquisition’ ranked at the bottom. The question for me is how will cost cutting be achieved? If through downsizing, then quality staff should be concerned; if through Becoming More Efficient or Waste Reduction, then there may be hope.

The proof may be in one of the statistics presented near the end of the report. I was disappointed to see once again the gulf between the quality professionals and their leaders. Nearly 80% of the quality pros believe their profession confers a competitive advantage, while only 34% of top management agree.

With that kind of gap it’s going to be hard to connect quality efforts to top management’s interests.

The report concludes that organizations are reacting in fundamentally different ways to the economic challenges:

On the one hand are those going into crisis mode, cutting back and de-emphasizing quality initiatives. On the other hand are those that continue to invest in quality and innovation as a competitive advantage even in the face of economic uncertainty… Organizations that refuse to panic, that move ahead judiciously with new initiatives, and that don’t cut too deeply will be better positioned to excel when the economy rebounds.

So far our experience is that Hertzler Systems is connecting with this latter group. Our customers continue to see opportunities to invest in real-time data to help reduce costs, improve efficiencies, reduce waste, and incrementally improve existing processes and products. We’re especially finding that asset utilization and Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) are valuable. We’ve been able to support our customer’s intent to pay more attention to these issues.

But what is your experience? How well are you aligned with your leadership? Or if you’re in leadership, how well are staff lined up with you?