Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quality Afterthoughts

I've been writing about quality issues since 1984—23 long years. In that time I've interviewed hundreds of quality professionals, gurus, practitioners, authors, consultants, you name it. Although each person had a unique perspective on quality, each claimed that improved quality (usually as a result of following his or her quality recipe) was right around the corner.

Unfortunately, I don't think we've turned that corner. In fact, in my humble opinion, quality for the most part still stinks. (I say for the most part because the "hard" side of quality—metrology—has made tremendous strides in the last two decades. Unfortunately, the "soft" side of quality—the human side—has fallen farther behind in many quality aspects, particularly with regard to service quality.

Although we see excellent examples of design, product, and service quality all the time, I'm afraid the bad (or more precisely, the mediocre) still outweighs the good.

It's getting to the point where we can't even trust the food we eat, the bridges we drive over, the toys our children play with, the cars we drive in, and the pills we pop. And when we do have a problem, we can't really trust the so-called "customer service" representatives who are supposed to help us through our hour of need.

It's frustrating that after going through zero defects, quality circles, total quality management, reengineering, benchmarking, ISO 9000, Six Sigma, lean, and all of their derivations, that quality is still so bad.

I know that many organizations have had great success with each of the aforementioned programs. Unfortunately, many have not. It seems to me that the ones who have been successful (and by that I mean have high-quality products and/or services; a happy, involved work force; a large and growing market share; and happy stockholders/stakeholders) have made these programs their own. They don't do ISO 9001 for the sake of meeting customer requirements. They don't have an employee involvement program because it's hip; they don't implement Six Sigma because the CEO's golfing buddy's company does.

A more telling sign of an organization's success with these quality initiatives is that they are done because the organization knows that they will result in better products and services, a happier work force, better sales, and long-term growth. The company integrates these "programs" into the company works. It doesn't have to make them separate fiefdoms and wage war against the company culture. It's just the way things work; it's not some onerous process.

Before, you send me the "Duh!" e-mail, stop and think about it. How many programs have you seen come and go over the years. Think about the successes and failures in your own organization. Think, too, about your experiences as a consumer. Are you really happy with the products and/or services your organization produces? More important, are you customers? How do you know? As I asked last month, how do you know you're improving? How do you know your customers are satisfied? Are you actively working to make sure that your customers are satisfied now and will be in the future? Are you really satisfied with the goods you buy? Are you getting the kind of service you think you should?

If you're like me, the answer is no. I'm not satisfied as a business owner with my organization's products and services. I want to make them better. As a consumer, I constantly amazed at the poor quality products I buy and the lousy service I receive. I am constantly amazed at the poor service I receive from customer service reps. I am leery of the food I eat. I worry that my children might be playing with lead-tainted toys. (For this I blame the company whose name is on the product, not the entire nation of China.) It just seems as though things are worse now than they were 20 years ago in many respects.

For example, flight delays and airline dissatisfaction are at their highest levels ever. New whiz-bang products are increasingly difficult to use. Online products and services are great unless they don't work or you have a question, then good luck finding a real person to talk to for help. In fact, many companies go out of their way to avoid interacting with you. How many times when you call for help are you told to "go online"? And, perhaps most telling of all, aren't you just delighted when you receive good service? If I actually get help with a problem or see someone go the extra mile to help it really stands out, even though that's what should happen every time.

You may be a quality manager at an organization. Your job may be to ensure that the widgets your company makes get out the door according to spec. But what are you doing beyond that? Are you collecting data on customer satisfaction with your products, your services, your billing, your technical support, your Web site, your product design, your distributors, your packaging, your advertising. If you say those aren't your job, you just might not have one down the road.

Trick or Treat?

It’s October and one of my favorite holidays is near: Halloween. Although this year’s holiday holds more tricks than treats as our economy teeters on the edge of recession thanks to an unstable housing market.

As we look forward to a new year that’s likely to be full of more economic bad news, it’s a good time to take a hard look at your organization’s quality system. After all, your goal as a quality professional is to help design products, systems, procedure, work instructions, data analysis and reporting systems, and more that help your organization to be as efficient, competitive, and profitable as possible.

I think it’s a great time for you—Mr. or Ms. quality professional—to ask yourself if your organization’s quality is better today than it was last month? Last year? Ten years ago? How do you know if it is better or worse? How do you define better or worse? Do you measure your quality success in terms of defects? Satisfied customers? Profits? Employee retention? Stock price? What may have been important last year or last month may not matter as much to your organization and your customers as something else today.

You may have the most accurate gages, the highest tolerances, the highest performing product, and lousy customer service. Or, you might have the best service in the industry and lousy products. What matters more? More important, what matters now? And, most important of all, what will matter tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade?

The “what will matter” question is one that Japanese manufacturers have excelled at for decades. And it’s a question that few U.S. manufacturers have been able to comprehend. Take U.S. automakers, for example. They’ve spent two decades catching up to the Japanese. And, they’ve succeeded. Their defects per thousand are on par with the Japanese, but they failed to accurately comprehend where the U.S. consumer would be today. And, I would venture to say that they have failed to guess where consumers will be next year, five years and 10 years from now.

Toyota and Honda accurately predicted that all things being equal in terms of fuel economy, defects, reliability and such, that the consumer would be drawn to functionality and design. (Although I must say that General Motors seems to be closer to hitting this mark than its rivals.)

The Korean automakers have learned from the Japanese. They’ve managed to bring their quality levels to world-class standards in a relatively short time frame. They, too, are now focusing on the future.

The Big Three should take some solace from the knowledge that the Chinese automakers with their low labor costs and government support haven’t seem to caught onto this concept—yet. They, too, are running in catch-up mode.

Another industry where forward-thinking companies are cleaning up is major home appliances. Ten years ago our kitchens and laundry rooms were filled with Kenmores, GEs, Amanas, Frigidaires, and other U.S. brands. Now, LG, Samsung, Bosch, and other non-U.S. brands are popping up everywhere. European and Korean appliance manufacturers correctly met current market needs for more energy efficient appliances that are quieter, with larger capacities, and that have more functionality.

Six years ago I bought a matching Maytag washer and dryer. I was thrilled with my purchase. At that time, it was difficult to find an appliance brand in this country that had a better reputation for quality. Sadly, I didn’t realize that Maytag’s quality had gone down the drain. My Maytag repairman is anything but lonely. We’ve had our washing machine serviced so many times that I’ve lost count. My wife (She Who Must Be Obeyed) longingly eyes the new front-loading washers every time we pass them at Lowes.

So, here’s my Halloween trick (or treat, depending on your perspective) for you: Answer these three questions:
  1.  Is your quality better today than last year? How do you know the answer to this? Do you have accurate metrics to compare? What are you measuring? How do these measurements affect your products (e.g., defects, tolerances, reliability, etc.), services (e.g., customer satisfaction, retention, etc.), employees (e.g., satisfaction, turnover, productivity, etc.), stockholders (e.g., share price, market share, etc.), and regulators (local, state, federal, and foreign governments) (e.g., environmental, health and safety compliance, etc.).
  2. What does “better” mean to your organization? What are you striving to improve and why? Obviously, your answer will include all of the above, but what else? What is happening in your organization and with your customers and the market that you as a quality professional need to know about? Is it cheap Chinese-made goods? Is it a new government regulation? A new competitor? Start from scratch. Reevaluate your quality system. See what matters to your customers now. 
  3. What are you doing today to ensure that your organization’s products and/or services are meeting the needs of your customers next year? What are you doing to determine these future needs? A crystal ball won’t help, but customer surveys, focus groups, and the like can. I know that many quality professionals believe that this is the domain of marketing or sales, but if you don’t know what customers think of your organization and your products now and what they are looking for down the road, you’re doomed. 

OK, I know this column read a lot more like a college lecture than normal, but, hey, it’s almost Halloween.

The Future of Quality

One of the fun parts of being a columnist is that you get to opine on whatever strikes your fancy, as long as it somewhat relevant to the magazine’s general content. You also get to make predictions without having to worry about having a ton of supporting data. Sure, I can be wrong, but as long as what I write is moderately informative/interesting/amusing/entertaining, the editors will keep publishing it.

So, having laid the foundation for what comes next, it’s time to once again to gaze into my crystal ball and make predictions about the future of quality. I periodically have this ridiculous urge to make predictions. I am frequently wrong, (and occasionally right), but, hey, who’s perfect?

Prediction no. 1: After declining for the past decade, quality will take on a new importance within organizations and the government. There are several reasons for this. First, the much-touted “new global economy” (or flat world) is finally here. And despite all the wonders it has wrought, quality has suffered. Tainted pet food, poisoned tooth paste, and lead-coated toys are just a few of the more obvious signs that quality basics like design, auditing, inspection, calibration, etc. are still essential to protecting customers. Although we in the West may disregard such flagrant signs of poor quality as those I mentioned earlier, don’t forget that it was Western companies that had these products made for them. Therefore, we need to do a better job of managing our suppliers (and their quality systems).

Second, our aging infrastructure needs help. Collapsing bridges are just one of the more obvious signs that our industrial revolution infrastructure is getting pretty old. We will need to spend billions of dollars updating and retrofitting it. And we will want to make sure that it is of the highest quality.

Third, despite your feelings about Al Gore (and who doesn’t have strong feelings about Al, one way or the other?) and global warming, there is no doubt that our economy will adjust to it (the hype about global warming that is, not Al). We are already selling hybrid vehicles, installing solar panels on millions of buildings, building ethanol processing facilities, and replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones. I believe that these changes will continue to accelerate, culminating in a new and nonpolluting energy source that makes oil (and the countries that produce and export it) obsolete.

This will be the equivalent of a new industrial revolution, creating millions of new jobs and powering a dynamic economy. The solution to our energy/global warming crisis will probably be many faceted and complex, but there’s no doubt that new production facilities and whole new infrastructures will be required. (Let’s hope it is the U.S. economy that benefits.) Of course, all this new technology will require quality professionals to make sure that good quality processes are designed, implemented, and followed.

Of course, new industries/technologies/professions will require new regulations and new standards. That leads me to prediction no. 2: Standards will be become even more widespread and diverse than they are now.

As most of you know, ISO 9001 and ISO 9004 are due to be updated next year. In fact, most of the work on the revision is already done and the committee charged with revising the standard—ISO/TC 176—is putting the finishing touches on the revision and making sure all the different countries involved in approving the standard are happy, which is no easy task. ISO 9001:2008 will then go through several rounds of voting before it is approved.

My sources on the committee tell me that the revisions are pretty minor. This is probably a good thing, both in terms of keeping companies who are using the standard happy and to keep the standard generic, so that it can continue to be used as a platform for industry-specific standards like ISO/TS 16949 and AS9100.

It will also allow the standard to continue to be widely implemented globally in this new flat world. China is already has the most ISO 9001-registered companies in the world, but it has a long way to go both in registering companies and improving its certification process.

Of course, this continued focus on standards and the new standards spawned by new technologies will require quality professionals and auditors. It will also require an even greater knowledge of quality principles by management and workers at all levels. This leads us back to my first prediction.

So, prediction no. 4 is that all those people out there who have been predicting the death of quality will have to eat their words.

Quality Hacks

One of my favorite Web sites is The site posts an ever-changing cornucopia of tips, tools and techniques for hacking (i.e., improving) your personal and business life. Lifehacker is updated constantly, and I usually check it a couple of times during the day. It’s a great little break during the workday.

Lifehacker has all kinds of nifty tips, such as using e-mail more effectively, managing your time better, tweaking software to make it easier to use and more productive, and do-it-yourself projects that are fun and meaningful. I’ve discovered a lot of really useful information on the site that I use daily to make my job (and my life) a little easier.

For example, Lifehacker has featured some excellent tutorials on a very cool piece of software for Mac users called Quicksilver, which is a very nifty application that eliminates the need to look for nearly any application, document, file, picture, address or just about anything else you commonly search for on your computer. (Sorry, Windows devotees, but there really isn’t a Quicksilver equivalent for you yet. Launchy is close, but not so much.)

Lifehacker has also taught me how to use Google’s nifty e-mail service Gmail much more efficiently, how to fix a dent in my car, how to make my own paper, and it’s even taught me how to organize the mass of cables that run all over my desk. (OK, I actually haven’t fixed the dents, made the paper or cleaned up the cables, but at least I know how now.)

Recently, while checking out Lifehacker, I got to thinking that there really should be a place to share quality hacks—all those cool time-saving tips and techniques that quality professionals use in the course of their jobs to make their lives a little easier.

To help facilitate the sharing of quality hacks, I’ve just launched a new Web site called, aptly enough, QualityHacks ( where you can post your quality hacks and check out other hacks that quality professionals have posted. It’s a free site; I’ve just created it to give the quality community a forum to post hacks. Because it’s free, it’s pretty basic for now. If it proves to be popular, I’ll upgrade it.

In order for the site to be useful, it has to contain information. This is where you come in. I invite (beg, plead, urge—you get the idea) you to post your quality hacks on the site. They don’t have to be complicated or fancy. In fact, simpler is preferred. And you don’t have to worry about spelling and grammar and such. We’ll clean it up for you. We just want to give you an easy way to share your tips and techniques.

Here are some possible topics:
  • How have you modified the SPC software package you use to work better?
  • How have you set up your document control system?
  • How do you manage your gage calibration scheduling?
  • How do you communicate quality issues to employees, customers, and suppliers?
  • How do you motivate your internal auditors?
  • How do you recognize and reward team members?
  • How do you use everyday applications like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. in your quality processes?
  • How did you select that last piece of measuring equipment you bought?

    If these sound like questions you’d like to see the answers to, you’re probably not alone. If they sound like questions you’d like to answer, rest assured that there a lot of people out there who would really like to know how you answered. Don’t be shy! Your peers are in the same situation you are.

    Check out Read, post and grow!