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Scott Paton

Grading Quality

Why is quality still so bad?


I recently had dinner with Quality Digest columnist H. James Harrington, whom I consider to be one of the most experienced, most influential quality thinkers of our time. So when Jim asked me what I, as the editor in chief of Quality Digest, thought about the state of quality today, I knew my answer had better be good.

 I thought for a moment and then said, "Terrible."

 Jim smiled and nodded in agreement, and the conversation turned to our opinions of everything from ASQ to zero defects.

 Ever since that dinner, I've been thinking about that one-word answer, "Terrible." How can quality be terrible after all of the billions of dollars spent on zero defects, quality circles, total quality management, reengineering, ISO 9000, benchmarking, Six Sigma and on and on?

 Most of these initiatives were implemented in purely manufacturing environments. And, although I'll admit that the quality of U.S. products as a whole is better now than it was in 1972, it's also certainly worse today than it was in 1992. If U.S. manufacturing had truly learned its lesson, we wouldn't be slapping a 40-percent tariff on imported steel; the Big Three's brands would dominate the top ten of J.D. Power's various quality, customer satisfaction and dependability lists; and corporations wouldn't be fending off product liability lawsuits left and right. (Remember the Ford-Bridgestone/Firestone debacle?)

 Consider, too, that manufacturing constitutes only about 15 percent of the U.S. economy. The other 85 percent comprises things like airlines, hotels, banks, car dealerships, health care facilities, schools, governments and retail establishments—none of which is known for its high-quality reputation. If you've had a truly high-quality experience on a recent flight or with your loan application or buying a car or with your hospital, you're in the minority.

 So why is quality so abysmal? After all, today's quality managers have been through the aforementioned quality initiatives and have more resources at their disposal than ever before.

 The blame lies not with the humble quality manager, but entirely, and I do mean entirely, with senior management. With very few exceptions, today's CEOs, presidents and the like just don't give quality as much attention as they should. In fact, it's my opinion that they spend even less time dealing with quality issues than they did 10 years ago. (They've invested in all the trendy quality initiatives over the years, so why should they?) Because of this, they fail to see the simple but essential relationship between customers' needs and expectations and designing, building and delivering great products and services.

 So quality managers, don't send me hate mail; you're doing your job: ensuring products get designed, built and delivered exactly according to specifications. But a lousy product is still a lousy product. And, state-of-the-art metrology equipment designed to measure to nearly subatomic levels; document control software packages that allow any employee anywhere in the world to pull the exact spec at exactly the right time; enterprisewide SPC software packages that gather, analyze and make data available to managers in a split second; and ISO 9001-certified quality management systems are useless if you deliver crappy service.

 Enough of my rant. I'd like to know your thoughts on the state of quality today.

E-mail your comments to .

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