I once worked in quality improvement capacity as Director of TQM for a distribution company for whom the term supply management was a new concept. Purchasing in particular felt that it had no clout or influence over suppliers. The rest of the company saw purchasing as the price choppers and the whipping boy for stock outs. I was facilitating an improvement project with this group and we quickly ran up against resistance from other departments who thought that purchasing problems needed to be solved by purchasing alone and who weren’t interested in owning their contributions to problems. This was, of course, not entirely the case. In this company, Sales was the king to whom all others had to defer. Not to minimize the importance of sales, since they were the revenue generators. But they often created unnecessary waste and cost (and fire drills for purchasing) due to their focus on making their numbers. This resistance to working with purchasing rather than dictating to them turned out to be a bigger problem than recalcitrant suppliers. At one of our meetings, I jokingly described the way something was done as “Mickey Mouse”. One of the purchasing staffed replied that of course it was, as they were working for a Mickey Mouse company. After a few days, mouse ears and white gloves popped up all over purchasing on the tops of monitors and filing cabinets. I had struck a sensitive spot, and we had stumbled upon an inadvertent team-building tool.
However, continuous improvement meant working counter to a culture that had existed in this company since its inception and was very challenging. In this family-owned business, the staff was getting mixed messages. On the one hand, they were told that they were “empowered” to improve things. On the other hand, the empowerment went only so far before it could be squelched by the owner who, although he wanted his company to improve, felt that deep down, improvement was for everyone but him.