Closing the ‘Inspiration Gap’

Motivating and sustaining quality improvements at scale

By Paul Rutten and Kayvan Kian, McKinsey & Company; and Wolf-Christian Gerstner

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Most employees don’t associate “inspiration” with the quality function, but it’s time that they make this connection and perceive quality as an inspiring job. By seeking out inspirational ideas and applying them to develop an attractive vision for quality, leaders can in turn galvanize the rest of the organization to advance to higher levels of performance. A compelling change story can motivate employees to get started, and ongoing inspiration from leaders can help to fuel continuous improvement and a sustained transformation. 

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
—Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s advice to artists may seem far removed from the work of the quality organization. Indeed, most employees in the quality function and other areas consider today’s pharma quality environment to be anything but inspiring. Quality employees are frequently perceived as “police officers” who check and control adherence to standards and enforce bureaucratic requirements, or “firefighters” who arrive on the scene to prevent issues from growing into catastrophic events. Quality procedures are seen as overly bureaucratic and too complex, perhaps better suited to meet regulators’ increasing expectations but not to achieve the ultimate goal of improving patients’ lives. These perceptions are a source of frustration for the entire industry because they place quality in a no-win situation.

Most executives are aware of quality’s “inspiration gap” and acknowledge that closing it will require significant effort — but yield great benefits. As a first step to closing the gap, they will need to convince their organizations that inspiration and quality transformation are inextricably linked.

Artists do not have a monopoly on inspiration. In fact, inspiration is the starting point for each change a business organization seeks to make, whether to catch up to the industry average or to improve from “good” to “great.” At companies that are lagging behind their industry peers, inspiring stories of success can open employees’ eyes to the gap between their current performance and best practice and motivate them to start the journey toward greatness. For companies that are on par with their industry peers, inspiration is particularly important for dispelling employees’ complacent beliefs that “everything is good” or “we are doing fine.” Examples of what superior performance looks like can provide a case for action that motivates employees to overcome their complacency and pursue new avenues to success.

Inspiration is the engine that keeps a transformation moving forward by fueling continuous improvement through new energy and ideas. Consider the cautionary example of one pharmaceutical company’s quality transformation that suffered from an “inspiration gap.” The transformation generated great momentum during the initial phase, and executives understood the need to sustain the momentum and improvements. But almost as soon as the program began, they became concerned that the organization would revert to the “old normal” after 9 to 12 months. Employees seemed uninspired about the need for change and doubtful of their own abilities to sustain improvements. Their comments reflected their lack of inspiration: “This quality initiative will go away after one year at most, just like every other major project” or “This quality transformation is just another swing of the pendulum —t he organization will soon swing back from strong quality to business as usual.” To successfully address this “inspiration gap,” the executive team spent significant time and effort to engage and inspire a broad group of executives far beyond the core group working on the transformation or affected by it.

Most pharmacos face similar challenges. How can they overcome them and inspire their entire organization to achieve and sustain higher levels of quality performance?

An organization’s journey from good to great can start with just one executive being inspired and then using that spark as the basis for developing a new vision for quality’s future state and a change story. By spreading ideas to other executives and employees, an executive can mobilize a critical mass to support change. But inspiring others starts with finding your own inspiration. What is the best approach for making this happen?

Finding improvement ideas that inspire change is actually the easiest step of the process. But we often find that the mindset of leaders is the greatest barrier to finding inspiration. Leaders need to believe that they will find inspiring and helpful examples — they need only to look. And sources for inspiration are not hard to find. Every good manager should continually keep up with internal and external best practices and be on the lookout for fundamentally new ideas.

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