Ian Marsh, senior vice-president and general manager of American Express, knew the company was doing something right when on his way out of the door to a meeting in Central he was stopped in the lift, caught for wearing a tie. As of July 1 this year his Hong Kong office had officially agreed to go four days 'smart-casual' and one day 'casual-casual'. No ties allowed. The drive behind the new, relaxed dress code was the company listening to its 'internal customers'. Quality management at American Express has opened communication between staff and executives. Mr Marsh confirmed that changes were more whole-heartedly embraced when staff were involved in the decisions. The dress-down move, ratified by the company's Quality Board, increased employee satisfaction at zero cost, according to AmEx. Positive response to an employee survey showed that staff recognised management's response to their requests. Mr Marsh stripped away at management layers to be closer to his staff. He sought to understand and be 'sensitive to cultural behaviour in Asia'. At first, his innovative efforts like the 'town hall' meetings and the 'Ian Meets Staff' lunches flopped. No one said anything. 'Getting people to speak up, creating an environment where people were comfortable was the idea.' Questionnaires like 'Express-It' and other vehicles for staff feedback and opinions are now catching on. Mr Marsh said the overall atmosphere was more informal and conducive to the mutual sharing of information. Staff suggestions were encouraged and, if implemented, employees were rewarded with financial bonuses. Now seen as a more approachable leader, Mr Marsh has to have a good answer ready if he is going to wear a tie. He denies this approach is all just 'feel-good' corporate philosophy. With specific guidelines and reference points, staff and management alike could track their actions and see how day-to-day operations led to larger results. He said leadership was the key driver of quality management for any company but clarified that it meant 'creating a field of vision . . . setting an example and being seen by colleagues as a role model'. A veteran sponsor, American Express has been involved with the Quality Award since 1991. Mr Marsh, a member of the judges' panel, said quality management 'allows companies to make decisions based on facts, to research and develop products that meet and exceed customer expectations'. 'Too many companies think they know what customers want. [The result] is a waste of products and money. The cost space leads to failures.' Pointing out that, in 1993, the judges declined to name an award winner as none of the finalists was able to meet the demanding criteria, Mr Marsh acknowledged the award 'standards are tough'.