Monday interview: Claire Ford, Quality Scotland

Claire Ford takes over as chief executive at Quality Scotland this week. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Claire Ford takes over as chief executive at Quality Scotland this week. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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NEW boss at Quality Scotland takes the Lean approach to effective management.

Almost nine years on from joining Quality Scotland straight from university, Claire Ford will this week take over as chief executive of the organisation, which is tasked with promoting business excellence across the private, public and voluntary sectors.

We’re seeing if we can send some people to a ‘learning journey’ at Bosch in Munich

Claire Ford

With a remit like that, the role of heading a charitable body with 200 members – including defence contractor Selex ES, Royal Bank of Scotland and Wheatley Group, the social housing specialist – must at times be akin to herding cats, but Ford insists the lessons of effective management can apply to all walks of business life.

“Organisations phone us up and ask, for example, to speak to someone else who has a great way of engaging with their customers,” she says.

Even the set of “Lean” manufacturing principles, which grew out of Japanese car-maker Toyota’s production system, have their place in helping the public sector reduce costs in these austere times by eliminating unnecessary processes and using assets more effectively.

“We’ve teamed up with Catalyst Consulting [a London-based training outfit] to launch the first Quality Scotland Lean Six Sigma award, and it’s open to all sectors,” says Ford.

“Many people think Lean only applies to private sector manufacturing, but local authorities have come to us and used our associates for training.”

The Lean Six Sigma gong will be handed out at Quality Scotland’s annual awards for business excellence, to be held on 16 June, giving Ford a couple of months to settle into her new role before the event in Glasgow.

When she succeeds long-standing boss Dave Bradley on Wednesday, the native of County Armagh, Northern Ireland, will not only become the organisation’s first female chief executive, she will also be its youngest. However, having worked her way up through the ranks since joining Quality Scotland in 2006, she does not appear to be daunted by the prospect.

“The main focus for me is growing the membership,” says Ford amid the wood-panelled surroundings of the charity’s head office in Edinburgh’s West End. “We’re perfectly placed to get access to more organisations across Scotland. We’re unique in terms of what we do, because we work across all sectors and with all people from chief executives to frontline staff.”

As well as a growing presence on home turf, Ford is keen to strengthen Quality Scotland’s links overseas through its membership of the non-profit European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM), based in Brussels.

EFQM has 39 partners from 34 countries and has chosen the top ten – including Quality Scotland – to form a partners’ council tasked with developing more ways of promoting continuous improvement to help companies become more competitive.

“We have a very good, and improving, relationship with the EFQM,” Ford says. “We’re in the process of seeing if we can send some people to a ‘learning journey’ at Bosch in Munich.”

She adds: “EFQM has also moved into the Middle East and Africa, so the boundaries are widening all the time. Even though the name suggests it would be restricted to Europe, it’s much broader than that.

“One of the things I’m keen to explore is how we can strengthen our overseas relationships, looking beyond Scotland and the UK for excellence.”

When times are tough and firms are focused more on their bottom line than sending staff to sunnier climes for a course in customer service, Ford acknowledges that training is often “the first thing they think can get rid of”.

“But if they don’t develop their staff and don’t keep up with current thinking, then in terms of money it can cost them an awful lot more. We try to put on as many opportunities as possible – we’ve launched a webinar programme so people can log in from their desk and it’s free for members. We’re looking at ways of getting round this pressure of people feeling they need to be in the office.”

Which takes us to the work-life balance – a subject that Ford, the mother of two young boys, is all too familiar with. Her first role was as voluntary sector account manager, moving to public sector account director after the birth of her first son. In April last year, she was promoted to chief operating officer and often finds herself dealing with e-mails “while doing the tea” at home.

“It is a challenge, but Quality Scotland strives very much to give people that balance. Whether they have volunteering or caring responsibilities, we work hard to make sure they have that part of their life as well as delivering what we need for the business.”

Founded in 1991 with 14 members, the organisation may have grown that number to 200 over the years but remains a tight-knit team, with just 18 people in the team. Ford says it was a male-dominated entity when she joined almost nine years ago, but now has a broader mix of staff.

“There are careers to be had here, as my progression would evidence – we have graduates joining us and then being able to work across the business. Although we’re a small team, people get access to chief executives and management teams across all sectors. The experience we can offer internally to staff is second to none.”

30 SECOND CV

Job: Chief operating officer, Quality Scotland – becomes chief executive on Wednesday

Born: Craigavon, 1983

Education: University of Edinburgh, international business and French

First job: Working in Tesco

Car: Mazda 3

Favourite mode of transport? The train – you get a lot of thinking time

Music: Ed Sheeran – but my sons’ favourite is Happy by Pharrell Williams

Can’t live without: My family

Favourite place: In all honesty, it’s probably Edinburgh

Who inspires you? No individual stands out, but I admire people who have a mixture of traits

Best thing about your job: Diversity – every day can be different

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