Every business owner likes to think that he or she has a commitment to quality. If that were truly the case, of course, no product would ever disappoint, and no service would result in a complaint. So how can you improve quality at your company? Here are 5 steps you can take to put you on the right path.

1. Make a commitment.    

W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement, famously laid out 14 points for management—chief among them, the notion of "constancy of purpose."

Deming argued that a company's commitment to quality had to come from the top, and it had to be reinforced over and over again. Unless a business views quality as its single, non-negotiable goal, workers will inevitably feel the need to make tradeoffs and quality will slip.

"Constancy of purpose means that quality decisions are not situational," writes the operational expert Rebecca A. Morgan. "End of month quality is the same as beginning of month. It means that the long term benefit of the organization is not sacrificed to hit quarterly targets."

So are you ready to commit? If you are, you should tell your staff—and then think about how you will handle the first conflict between your stated objective and a pressing deadline or an attractive short cut.

Dig Deeper: The Power of Purpose

2. Track mistakes.

If you are going to commit to quality, first you must define exactly what quality is. For manufacturers, this process involves statistical quality control, the process of setting a product's specifications and then sampling a small number of units from the production line to see how closely they measure up to those specs. Standards are set and, if too much deviation occurs (or if quality appears to be trending in the wrong direction), the manufacturing process is altered.

Tracking quality is admittedly more difficult in a service business, and efforts by groups such as the International Organization for Standardization (known as ISO) to create meaningful benchmarks beyond manufacturing have had mixed results.

One way to gauge customer satisfaction (and, by extension, the quality of your service) is by tracking what is called a net promoter score. Devised by a Bain consultant named Fred Reichheld, a net promoter score keeps tabs on the number of customers who would recommend a business to their friends. A customer who answers 9 or 10 is seen as a promoter; a customer who answers 7 or 8 is seen as passive; and a customer who gives a company a score of 6 or lower is seen as a detractor. By subtracting the number of detractors from the number of promoters, a company arrives at its net promoter score.

Dig Deeper: How to Address Quality Issues

3. Invest in training.

An old saw of the quality movement is that any business with a quality control department is doomed to poor performance, for it has demonstrated to every other employee that quality is not his or her chief concern. Instead, quality experts recommend that businesses train workers at all levels to look for ways to improve quality and to ameliorate problems.

Training takes on several dimensions. For starters, you should set up a new-employee initiation program that trains workers to focus on quality issues from their first day on the job. Different CEOs have different perspectives on how best to do this. Ralph Stayer, the quality-obsessed CEO of Johnsonville Sausage in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconisn, believes your existing employees should be put in charge of training new employees, because only they can provide a firsthand perspective on how your company's operations work. Ari Weinzweig, founder and CEO of the Zingerman's Family of Companies in Ann Arbor, Michigan, takes a different approach: He personally leads all new-employee orientation training sessions (which last several days) because he believes an employer never has a better chance of instilling values and a sense of purpose than right after he or she has hired a new employee.

Whether you hand train duties to your employees, take them on personally, or some combination of the two approaches, it's important that you provide workers with a history of the company through the lens of quality. Let them know what problems you have had in the past, how you corrected these problems, and where your company stands with respect to its quality goals today. You should also go over your definition of quality in detail, and show them how you measure quality (see the previous section.) Finally, train workers to see the connection between their actions and, more broadly, their work ethic, and the company's overall performance. By tying individual behavior to an overall system of work, and then showing where that system can, on occasion break down, you will be giving workers the information they need to be good stewards of your business.

Dig Deeper: Ralph C. Stayer on How Johnsonville Sausage Embraced Quality

4. Organize quality circles.

Your staff members may roll their eyes at the introduction of such a dated technique, but organizing employees into quality circles can be an effective way to identify and address problems. Simply put, quality circles are groups of employees who are encouraged to assess processes and recommend improvements, all with the goal of promoting quality, efficiency, and productivity. The concept was developed by Deming in post-war Japan, and made its way to the United States in the late 1970s. At one point, half of all large corporations had adopted quality circles, but then interest in them faded.

That's a shame. Quality circles, by any other name, are teams of workers who are given the authority and responsibility for making a business better. To succeed, experts say that participation in a quality circle should be voluntary; circles should draw members from all corners of a company; and the circle should set its own agenda (rather than pursuing a company owner's agenda.)

Once you have invited workers to join a quality circle, provide them with adequate resources to pursue their analysis, and schedule a time in the future at which they may present their findings. It is important that you act on their recommendations, even if the group's conclusion is not necessarily one you would have drawn yourself. Remember, the purpose of the exercise is less to solve a particular problem than it is to engage workers in the process of finding and addressing concerns. Moreover, you should be tracking customer complaints or product defects on a regular basis, so if the circle's recommendations do not produce the desired result, you'll know it, and be able to act.

Dig Deeper: How to Set Up Quality Circles

5. Have the right attitude.

Too many people turn the quest to improve quality into something oppressive. No less an authority than Deming rejected the idea that the quality management had to be dreary and involve a lot of negativity. "The prevailing system of management has crushed fun out of the workplace," Deming moaned in an interview in the 1990s.

This attitude is not necessarily easy to adopt and runs afoul of some of the basic management practices we take for granted. For example, Deming was not a fan of performance reviews, as the writer John Case has explained. "[I]f your evaluations are fair, you will determine that half your workers (by definition) are below average, and you will tell them so," Case writes. "Result: half the work force is instantly discouraged and demoralized, and any sense of common purpose is undermined."

Rather than pointing out inadequacy wherever it might be found, Deming believe that the job of managers was to frame the pursuit of quality as an interesting, noble, and worthwhile goal. If you are to truly improve quality at your business, whether you manufacture products, distribute goods, or perform a service for your clients, your first step (and also the hardest) is to resist the temptation to dwell on your company's flaws and instead rally your team around the cause of rooting them out.

Dig Deeper: Zero-Defect Management