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TOP MANAGERS HOLD KEY TO QUALITY Non-profits' commitment to excellence must start at the top and filter down


More and more non-profit organizations are recognizing that quality issues are vital to their long-term success. So why hasn't every non-profit board or CEO embraced a commitment to quality?

At a recent Total Quality Management retreat put on by the Chesapeake and Potomac Blood Region of the American Red Cross, leader Jack Brown guided top managers through an informative process. The recent hiring of Brown as senior vice president for quality management reflects the organization's commitment to quality throughout its operations.

"The largest obstacle to TQM comes from institutional leadership. For changes to occur, it must be generated by top management," says Vivian Cary, president of The Cary Group, a New York health care management and consulting firm specializing in TQM.

As former associate administrator of a major teaching hospital, she has noted the gradual shift from quality assurance, largely a retrospective process, to TQM, which brings departments together to solve problems from a systems perspective. At the Red Cross retreat it was obvious that Chief Operating Officer David Simms and Chief Executive Officer Paul Ness, M.D., are committed to nothing short of a comprehensive plan for quality (read customer focus).

With Brown leading the discussion, participants were assured that nothing was too bizarre to propose if it meant improving customer service. Everyone was encouraged to share ideas.

The day started with an agency review -- some of it troubling. But understanding an organization's shortcomings is essential for the total quality management process to be effective. The group next revisited its mission, goals and long-term direction, while focusing on customer service. Then, the group broke into smaller teams to address major customer service issues, and the real work began.

Throughout the day, the teams struggled with the TQM process. By the end of the second day, each team presented to the larger group a list of quality issues, a time line and suggested team leader. Despite a grueling pace, the energy level was high and the enthusiasm for the TQM process even higher. The group was charged with spreading the TQM process throughout the organization.

As I listened to the teams debate priorities, I was impressed by the incredible complexity of blood products and the myriad blood-related services offered by the Red Cross. Here, quality is no abstract matter.

There are vital concerns dealing with blood donors and how they are treated, transporting blood from collection to storage, maintaining adequate inventory, minimizing aging and spoilage, testing for safety of the blood supply, researching new products and procedures, supplying and invoicing hospitals, marketing to attract more donors -- the list goes on. To accomplish each of these tasks, with a commitment to be the best and to put the customer first, is a major undertaking.

As with any organization embarking on a TQM process, the Red Cross understands that this is a long-term, continuous process. Follow-up meetings occur every two weeks, as systems are set up to spread quality throughout the organization.

Part of the TQM process involves what is known as "benchmarking," identifying other organizations noted for outstanding performance in one or more of the functions that need to be addressed. These benchmarks do not even necessarily have to be in the same industry. In the case of the Red Cross, for example, the blood product transportation function will examine the operations of Federal Express.

By now, TQM has advanced enough to have a solid body of literature and a set of methods that have been tested. In next week's column, we'll look at TQM tips that can be applied to any non-profit organization committed to its customers.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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