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(a) Quality Defined as People, Process and Product: QP3

Successful organizations are the result of many things. Amongst others, these include participatory planning, excellent leadership, highly committed staff, an appropriate organizational pattern, sound human resources practices, clearly defined and consistently lived organizational values, and an almost obsessive preoccupation with customer satisfaction. Each characteristic is necessary but, by themselves, insufficient for quality excellence. And even then they are individually or collectively present in an organization, they need to be aligned with an overarching goal – to provide a high quality service or product to the target stakeholder(s). Such an alignment provides the framework for quality assurance (QA) measures to be implemented by specifically focusing on three organizational dimensions: people, process and product – QP3. Quality of people is about the behaviour of the people who make up an organization. The critical quality question regarding peoples’ behaviour is: "are people in the organization behaving ethically given the organization’s guiding values, mission statement, stakeholders’ expectations, societal norms and mores, and legislative requirements. Quality of process is about the methods employed by an organization to convert inputs into outputs which are inclusive of stakeholders. A critical quality question regarding process is the extent to which organizational processes embed values, such as continuous improvement, transparency and accountability, learning, and optimization of social and technical systems, and make them operational for goal attainment. Quality product and/or service is about the commodity (tangible or intangible) offered by an organization. It is the extent to which an organization surpasses stakeholders’ expectations.

People, process, and product make up an organization system that, in excellent/high performance organizations, remain open to environmental influence and constructively incorporates this influence in its decision making and overall performance. It is no mistake, therefore, that the QP3 "holy trinity" is listed in a specific order, putting quality of people first. Until and/or unless organizations become fully automated or robotic, the people factor will be paramount since margins of variability and error, in production and service processes, are a direct consequence of human action. And quality is about minimizing variability and error in processes and product through optimization of the social and technical subsystems within organizations. This is why QP3 becomes a central model for QA. An organization’s social subsystem is about its people and the processes for their contribution, development, and validation. A technical subsystem is about the production process as well as the means for stakeholder input into this. When we talk about organizations as open systems made up of two major subsystems (social and technical), we are recognizing that QA is also about a system. So what does the "QP3" model (people, process, and product) really mean within the context of a quality assurance (QA) system? It means that excellence is something that is "90% perspiration and 10% inspiration". One does not simply "fumble freely into the future" to find oneself having achieved "nirvana" or the "excellent state". This comes only after an organization has consciously and, at times, painfully put to practice specific values about how it will achieve excellence through optimization of social and technical subsystems. Such values inevitably include notions of quality that pervade everything the organization does regarding its people, processes and product. The underlying logic is that quality is a defining characteristic of excellence but not achievable unless the organizational infrastructure (subsystems) i.e., people and processes have been nurtured and developed so that their output is a quality product. This is why product is last in the QP3 model. Without excellent people and processes, there is no quality product!

(b) QP3 and SEAAR: A Quality Assurance System

This discussion of the QP3 elements in high performance/excellent organizations needs to go one level deeper by asking: "what does excellence or quality mean?" A corollary question is: "does excellence or quality mean the same for every organization?" A close examination of the above explanations of quality reveals a common thread that weaves the quality fabric that drapes excellent/high performance organizations. This thread is stakeholder involvement that is at the heart of social and ethical accounting, auditing, and reporting (SEAAR). In its most fundamental sense, SEAAR is a performance measurement tool used by excellent organizations to engage stakeholders to set out performance evaluation criteria in the QP3 elements (people, processes, product). SEAAR is the methodology setting out people centered principles and process standards through which an organization engages its stakeholders to determine product and service excellence. Quality and excellence are, therefore, relative concepts defined by those (stakeholders) who impact on and are impacted by an organization. So quality cannot be pre-defined. It needs to be the outcome of negotiated processes that engage an organization and its stakeholders but anchored in the organization’s mission and guiding values.

If the criteria defining quality is similar across organizations, this is only coincidental because the critical success factor in a QA system is involvement of stakeholders and negotiation between them and the organization. What will not differ are the QP3 organizational elements since they are the focus points for QA. Their quality content will differ across organizations but not their form. Take for example staff as an internal stakeholder group. Organization "X" is made up of mainly women between the ages of 25 to 35. Many of these women are professional and have opted to delay child-rearing responsibilities until they have "established" their careers. Seventy-five percent of the women have at least one child under the age of five. There is clearly a need for organization "X" to have a supportive policy regarding work and family. This stakeholder group, therefore, may have this as an expectation and will evaluate organization "X’s" ethical performance based on whether or not there is a day-care centre at the workplace or a similar type of arrangement. This expectation is about the quality of people element in the QP3 model. It highlights the fact that quality people goes two ways – the quality of leadership in its respect and support for female employees and the quality of work of female employees who, while they are at work, are freed from the worries of child care. To not fall into gender stereotypes, male employees at organization "X", especially if they are single parents, may also use this expectation to assess quality of people in the QP3 model.

It can thus be argued that SEAAR and QP3 are the two sides of a QA coin. QP3 is the organizational performance dimensions requiring mechanisms for quality assurance and SEAAR is the methodological framework to measure performance, in terms of margins of error and variability, in each of the QP3 dimensions. In this respect, the SEAAR-QP3 combination is a QA system that differs from conventional QA systems. For example, each quality assurance cycle originates in stakeholder dialogue, is measured through rigorous monitoring processes and accounting systems, and culminates in stakeholder reporting. Moreover, the performance report from each quality cycle is objectively verified and its’ contents used to inform strategic and operational decision making for the purpose of improving the organization’s performance. From this perspective, the SEAAR-QP3 QA system is a process for transforming organizations into open learning systems that effectively manage the interdependence between they and their environments. The management of internal and external environments to create symbiotic relationships between excellent organizations and their stakeholders is thus an objective of the SEAAR-QP3 QA system. The following schematic captures the SEAAR-QP3 QA System:

The above QA model shows the systemic nature of quality in that it highlights the need for organizations to develop integrated and comprehensive strategies for quality assurance but to do so with their stakeholders. Stakeholder engagement is the distinguishing feature of high performance/excellent organizations because their relevance is assured by anchoring people, processes, and product in stakeholder expectations. The elegance of SEAAR in this QA system is that it cuts across all aspects of QP3. At the front end of a quality assurance cycle, SEAAR is the methodology for stakeholder engagement. During a quality cycle, SEAAR is a monitoring, data capture and analysis, and report generation tool. At the end of a quality cycle, SEAAR is a communication and decision making tool. An effective QA system is made up of these different components so SEAAR is critical to QA.

Variable Standard: An Oxymoron?

One of the arguments made thus far has been that in excellent organizations, the substance from which to define quality fundamentally emanates from stakeholders and this makes stakeholder engagement, as a QA element, critical. But it still may not be clear whether or not the SEAAR-QP3 QA system is a "variable" or "standard" or a "variable standard". In other words, does it change, stay the same, or something in-between when it is implemented in different organizations and/or within the same organization over time? We know that nothing is static so it seems safe to say that quality will be defined differently over time especially if it is subject to stakeholder expectation. Let’s take our previous case of organization "X". It is 5 years into the future and there has not been a significant staff turnover. One major difference is that most of the female staff now has all of their children in primary school so the need for a day-care on site is not as great. Instead, flexible work-times are valued in that they allow both the men and women with small children to drop-off and pick-up children or to respond to other family matters. The criteria staff may use to evaluate organization "X’s" performance may, therefore, change as time passes. So the question of time is clear but what about different organizations – does QP3 have different definitions in different organizations?

Let’s create a fact situation to problem solve the above question. Three organizations (A, B, C) are embarking on the quality assurance journey. All three use the SEAAR-QP3 QA system and so engage their stakeholders. Organization "A" is a pulp and paper primary resource branch plant of a multinational corporation. Organization "B" is a middle size computer technology firm. Organization "C" is a community based voluntary organization focusing on integrated rural development. All three organizations have "staff" as a stakeholder group but the profile of staff differs significantly across the organizations. Also, because of the different sector focus, some stakeholders that cut across the three organizations have different weightings in terms of their influence on or impact by the respective organizations. When we look at the range of stakeholder expectations across the organizations, it is obvious that QP3 is a quality standard that each organization applies in their own context. What quality of process means in organization "A" will most likely be different than organization "B" or "C" but all three organizations will be interested in ensuring that people, processes, and product are of the highest quality. The content of each of the three "P’s" will vary as we move across the organizations. This makes quality content a variable so we have a variable standard in the SEAAR-QP3 QA system. If we think about our three organizations, it becomes evident that it is not possible to adopt a "one size fits all" approach to quality assurance. And this is something SEAAR guards against by itself becoming criteria to assess quality of process for stakeholder engagement to define the substance of QP3.

Conflict Management in Quality Assurance

The way in which organizations determine QP3 assessment criteria depends on what they negotiate with their stakeholders and how effectively they manage inherent conflict in stakeholders’ expectations. Let’s use organization "A" from above as a case study. This organization, if it is to become a high performance organization, needs to have a process, anchored in its stakeholders’ expectations, to define the meaning of quality given its mission and guiding values. There is a high probability that shareholders, as one stakeholder groups, may not share criteria defining quality with a human rights non-governmental organization advocating for a sustainable environment. To manage conflicting stakeholders’ expectations, organization "A" will need a quality measurement tool that is people centered (quality of people), based on an inclusive process (quality of process) but which leads to a product that enables a "return" that is appropriate given divergent stakeholders’ expectations. Organization "A" will have to engage its different and conflicting stakeholders (i.e., shareholders and the NGO) to determine what quality means for each of them and then negotiate with each acceptable performance standards. The power of SEAAR is that it contains conflict by anchoring it in organization "A’s" mission and guiding values so that stakeholder expectations’ cannot be unrealistic or unreasonable. In developing a QA system, mechanisms for conflict management are critical. The SEAAR-QP3 model offers such mechanisms because limits stakeholder engagement to defining and evaluating organizational performance in terms of quality of people, process and product.


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