The Role of Leadership in Commitment to Quality

The most important part of any business growth strategy, the most effective business marketing idea, is product quality. If one looks at the true ‘built to last’ companies that Jim Collins writes about they have at their heart a fundamental, unquestioning, authentic commitment to quality. Every business talks about their belief in, and pursuance of, quality but for most it is just that – talk. They have quality procedures and quality standards and they strive to meet them. But – and this is the real test – they don’t actually strive to exceed them and if they need to compromise on quality occasionally to hit the bottom line target, they will.

The best companies commit a significant portion of their profits to continual improvement in quality and never, ever compromise quality for profit. These are companies like Mars, Procter & Gamble and Frito Lay. Mars, still a family run business, that has those family values of hard work and pursuit of excellence at its core, are famous for the fact that every one of their people live and breathe product quality. It is not an apocryphal story – their production and marketing teams not only regularly sample the confectionary products but their cat and dog foods as well. Procter & Gamble virtually invented the phrase ‘new and improved’ but unlike many others these improvements are real and discernable, the result of years of expensive research, development and testing.
Martin Glenn was for many years the CEO of Pepsico UK which included the flag ship company, Walkers – the UK potato chip version of Lays in the USA. He talks of the role of the leader of the business in nurturing a restless pursuit of perfection in product quality. As he says, “It may just be a potato chip to you but it is what we do and we do it to the very best of our ability, never satisfied that there is not some better way just around the corner if we work hard enough”. Easy for leaders to spout the words but what is more impressive is what Martin’s team say about him. His VP of Sales, Tom Cuzeo, said in an interview that everyone knew that if there was a smallest problem with a batch of chips they would throw away the lot and start again – they did not need to ask Martin, they knew what his standards were.

Stories are told by Mars employees about how the brothers come on to the production line in their factories around the world and know every single aspect of the process, the machines and how they should be working. They led from the front. August Busch III was similarly passionate about his beer, Budweiser. He visited Ireland once, a market where the brand was very successful, and, legend has it, went in to a busy Irish pub. He was not happy with the quality of some of the Bud they were serving and told the publican they were struck off the distribution list until they could get it right. Everyone watched in amazement as this billionaire business leader then proceeded to give everyone a lecture on how Bud should be poured, and what they were to look for in a great beer. His pride in his product was evident – for him it was personal. Richard Branson rarely sits down on a flight on Virgin – he walks the aisles checking everyone is getting the experience on board they paid for, in fact making sure they get more than they expected.
All very worthy and great for the consumer but does it make money? Yes, it does but it is not easy to say exactly how much profit can be attributed to this kind of obsession with quality. There is evidence you can point to. Martin Glenn compares the size of the potato chip markets in France and Switzerland. In France per capita consumption is much lower than it is across the border in Switzerland. The difference is, he believes, that in the land of William Tell one manufacturer dominates the market and sells a very high quality product. Quality grows the market and commands higher prices and this can be seen in beer, confectionery, pet food and any other category.

However, it is not easy to quantify this and perform accurate calculations on return on investment in quality. It is an act of faith and faith needs leadership. Leaders like August Busch III, Richard Branson, John and Forest Mars instil in their organizations an unquestioning commitment to quality and to its continual improvement. They don’t seek to satisfy customers, they seek to delight them. An exact price cannot be placed on this – it is in fact priceless.