Leaders use time-tested business practices to develop church quality

The quality movement provides a framework for churches to continuously improve processes.

By Mike Mitchell

I recently overheard this statement made by a member of a medium sized church: “I’m trying to get an event placed on the church calendar. I’ve asked three people on the church staff how to do this, and each has given me a different answer. How hard can it be?” I suspect most of us have heard this lament or one very similar from staff members or volunteers. For each of these complaints we do hear, how many more are being uttered each week outside of earshot? What is this costing your organization in terms of inefficient use of time and turnover of your team members?

The American corporate world suffers from the same malady, but over the last 20 or more years, it has developed a response — the quality movement. A recent Ford 
television commercial touts, “And Ford is now equal to Toyota in quality.” This is quite an incredible statement given where Ford was 25 years ago compared to Toyota. Clearly American companies have discovered something important. Why is it important that churches discover these things as well?

First, embracing the key tenants of the quality movement will make us better stewards of our resources. These are not just the financial resources of our organization, but the time and talents of our staff and volunteers. Every unnecessary step performed by someone on our team is either a hard cost (money spent on the performance of the task) or an opportunity cost (time not spent on doing a task that would create more value).

Don’t fail your volunteers

Second, it helps us to empower and use volunteers. When the processes we perform to conduct our operations are poorly defined and inconsistently applied, it is very difficult to quickly train and use volunteers. They are completely dependent upon the “expert” in the process (typically an already overburdened staff member) to make all of the decisions and handle all of the anomalies (situations where the process doesn’t go as planned), because the volunteers don’t understand the process well enough to make those calls.

Third, it provides a methodology for churches to be compelled to continuously improve. As a staff member at a large church, I was periodically reminded that over any 12-month period it was imperative that I become a more valuable team member to the organization. This was especially true if I was interested in receiving an increase in my compensation during the next annual review cycle. I embrace this philosophy but suggest that it needs to be extended to our business processes as well. If our processes are not more effective or efficient 12 months from now, is our church getting any better at performing its mission?

If we accept that there are compelling reasons for churches to embrace the quality movement, what can, or perhaps more appropriately, what should we learn and apply from the quality movement?

There are two important benefits that are accrued due to an effective quality culture in an organization. First, the reduction of process variability results in products or services which more predictably meet or exceed the expectations of the customers of the process, whether internal or external. Second, the reduction of the process cycle time (how long it takes to complete the process) results in products or services that achieve the desired results while consuming fewer resources. Both of these benefits should be valuable to churches.

Processes can stifle creativity

Quality is not developing rigorous controls that dictate every action our staff members and volunteers perform. Just as American corporations would get killed in the marketplace if they stopped innovating because their business processes inhibited them from doing things differently, American churches would suffer greatly if the processes of our ministries stifle the creativity of the incredibly gifted people on our teams.

Quality is recognizing that many of the overhead processes our churches perform on a regular basis are very similar to the processes performed by corporations that have refined those processes to the point of habit. Performing them requires little or no conscious thought on the part of the organization. Do you have to think about the process you use to brush your teeth? What does your mind do with the time you spend brushing your teeth? What are the implications of this to the activities of your church?

The ISO 9000 series of international quality certification guidelines that gained broad acceptance in the 90s have a relatively simple tenant: Say what you do (document your procedures) and do what you say (follow the procedures you’ve documented). This is sound advice for churches as well. Applying this principle, if not the details of the guideline, can help any church to be more consistent in the performance of its routine operations, create less waste and equip and empower more volunteers.

Six Sigma black belt

You don’t need to have a Six Sigma Black Belt (a popular business management strategy ranking) on your staff to develop an effective quality program in your church. Corporations have trained and empowered executives to lead process improvement initiatives. But they have also trained and empowered front-line, low-wage employees to do this as well. The people that operate the process generally have the best ideas how to improve it. However, if you have people in your congregation with credentials and experience in implementing quality programs, they can be extremely valuable resources in helping you develop a stronger quality culture in your church.

So you accept the idea that your church could benefit from applying these principles, but you don’t know where to start? There are several steps churches of all sizes can implement to take advantage of the opportunity. Leaders should select a key process that seems to cause the most frustration for staff and volunteers. Process participants should work to define and document the process the way it actually works, including all of the workarounds and rework loops.

It’s also important to define measures that indicate whether the process is operating as it should. Church leaders need to work to systematically improve the process and should use the process documentation to train process participants.

Give this a try with one key process. When you start to see positive results from the trial, select another process that includes different participants and repeat. Small wins at this will, over a relatively short period of time, provide a seed for growing a culture of continuous process improvement that helps us empower more people for ministry and be better stewards of our precious resources.

Mike Mitchell is business coach with ML3 Solutions, Mesa, AZ. [ML3Solutions.com]

What is the quality movement?

In the late 70s and early 80s, American business, particularly manufacturers of consumer products like automobiles and electronics, recognized that their markets were being seriously threatened by foreign competition. Japanese competitors were of particular concern because the quality of their products was perceived to be much better.

This led to an awakening — U.S. companies were not the dominant economic force they thought they were — and something needed to be done to reverse the tide. The Japanese had developed superior systems for delivering quality products, largely due to the influence of one man, an American, W. Edwards Deming. Isn’t it interesting how scripture says that a prophet is respected everywhere but in his own hometown?

So beginning in the early 80s, led largely by the Big Three automakers, the quality movement began in the United States. It has evolved over the years and flown a lot of different banners. TQ (total quality), TQM (total quality management), CPI (continuous process improvement), and ISO 9000 were some of the earlier labels for quality programs and the predecessors to some of the more recent terms like Kaizen, Kanban, Six Sigma, TPS (Toyota Production System), and Lean.

Each of these terms embraces its own set of unique attributes, but at their core they have the same fundamental belief — organizational success is directly tied to the effectiveness, efficiency and continuous improvement of the organization’s operating processes.


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