TechRepublic member F. Chan, a senior systems analyst for a health care organization in Southwestern Ontario, Canada, sent me an e-mail asking how to define quality service for an IT department. On the surface, this is an easy concept to understand—quality is something that is excellent or exceptional.

However, relating quality to management issues is certainly more challenging. Quality can mean different things to different people. For example, many end users of a LAN may consider quality to be a computer that starts up in the morning and does the things asked of it. Other users may see quality as easy access to a wide variety of software packages, while others may view quality as competent LAN technicians who are responsive and friendly.

Given the array of possible interpretations, you can’t just let your team members devise their own notion of what quality means. If you want your staff to provide quality service, you must provide them with a framework and definition. Consider the following points when trying to define quality service for your staff.

Total quality management: Concepts to build on
Much has been written in an effort to define quality, primarily in publications addressing total quality management (TQM). Developed by W. Edward Deming and others after World War II, TQM has been embraced by many private and public organizations as a way to create an open and trusting environment for workers. Our focus here isn’t on describing TQM, but we can borrow some of its concepts to provide a framework for quality service.

The search for quality service leads us to the examination of work processes, the people who make up the team or organization, and the people affected by the service. Here are a few things to think about when deciding what quality service means to you:

  • Quality is multifaceted. A LAN system (or anything else) will be considered to have high quality based on a variety of factors—all of which are important.
  • It is important to develop a framework for quality that fits your situation. This framework will serve as the foundation for your efforts to create quality service.
  • Promoting quality within a work environment is a critical management tool.

Quality is multifaceted
An important characteristic of quality is its complexity. If you ask a group of 10 coworkers to define quality service, you’ll get 10 different answers. It might be tempting to respond by throwing up your hands in dismay and forgetting about quality. But if you resist the urge, you can instead examine the characteristics of your work environment, as well as the backgrounds and perspectives of your team members and LAN users, and develop a model of quality that works for you. The following sample questions may help you pinpoint some factors that might relate to quality in your situation:

  • Is your LAN reliable? Has it worked well over time?
  • Are users satisfied with the LAN’s performance based on their expectations?
  • Does the LAN have the features people need?
  • Do the LAN technicians have the reputation of competence among users?
  • Are service calls answered promptly and are things fixed the first time?
  • Do your staff members feel that their work is worthwhile and that they are appreciated?
  • Who are the people you need to please—senior managers, users, team members?
  • What limitations do you have in pursuing quality? Is it out-of date equipment; low pay, compensation and bonuses for employees, or an executive who just does not seem to like technology?

Develop a framework for quality
Once you have an idea of what quality service is for your LAN team, you need to develop a strategy for supporting it. Discuss the issue of quality service with your staff members and work with them to develop an operational plan.

It is rarely sufficient to speak of quality service without having concrete goals, objectives, and action steps. You’ll need to put your expectations in writing. For example, determine an acceptable length of time for answering a service call and solving a computer problem (based on its level of complexity). Determine an acceptable length of downtime for the LAN (based on a realistic determination of what is reasonable) and do everything possible to stick to it.

Share your quality service plan with your superiors and with users. It helps for people to know how you are defining quality service and how you plan to make operational your goals and objectives.

Promote quality within the work environment
Managers have an important opportunity to highlight quality service within their teams. All too often, the quality operational plan is put on a shelf or under a short leg of the conference room table. Quality service is an ongoing and dynamic process that will atrophy with neglect.

Managers can promote quality service by:

  • Reminding team members of the goals, objectives, and action steps that are in place.
  • Actively evaluating the effectiveness of the team in meeting goals and objectives.
  • Listening to people affected by the LAN, gathering feedback, and showing interest in their concerns.
  • Being prepared to modify the quality service plan to address new conditions.

An example
The following scenario touches on some of these points. Emily is a new IT manager responsible for the successful operation of a LAN for a division of 75 people. She was told when taking the new position that her mandate was to improve the quality of her team’s LAN service. After the excitement of her promotion wore off, she began to wonder what people meant by quality service.

Emily went through the team’s policy and procedure manual and spoke to various employees about the meaning of quality. There was nothing in the manual describing quality, and in general, people described it in broad and fuzzy terms.

She approached her supervisor to find out more about quality service. He said that he wanted things to run smoothly and for people to be satisfied with things. Although helpful, this did not give her sufficient information to create more quality in the LAN service. Emily decided to find out more about quality service. She interviewed her own team members and end users to find out what quality service was to them, and spoke to senior management to determine what quality service meant within the organizational context.

Emily reviewed the results from the interviews and developed a rough plan, including goals and objectives and action steps for the team to use in improving quality service. She presented the plan at a team meeting, where members discussed the issues and decided on a formal action plan. She presented the plan to her supervisor and communicated it to the LAN users to let them know how quality was going to be defined and what the team would do to achieve the highest quality service possible.

Emily revised the policy and procedure manual to include information about quality service and had an attractive poster created that summarized what quality service meant to the team. Emily received positive feedback from both team members and LAN users that the focus on quality was improving operations and helping people to feel more positive about the LAN.

Final thoughts
Quality service may be a difficult concept to define, but it is one of the most important issues a new IT manager will deal with. Managers have a unique opportunity to establish a positive and energized work environment by helping team members to focus on quality service. The best way to determine what quality service means for your team is to examine the work processes, goals, and objectives of the team, as well as looking at the needs of people affected by the service. Quality service is also a dynamic process that involves continuous reevaluation of the team’s priorities and the needs of users.

If you would like to learn more about the concept of quality service, I recommend Total Quality Service: Principles, Practices, and Implementation by D.H. Stamatis (1995) and Quality Service Pure and Simple: A Primer for Improving Services in Your Organization by Ronald W. Butterfield (1991).

New manager questions

Steven Watson has 10 years of IT management and consulting experience and has developed an understanding of how the issues faced by IT managers differ from those of their nontechnical colleagues. As a new tech manager, do you have a question you’d like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.