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by Mike Richman

“The quality manager must be clear, right from the start, that zero defects is not a motivation program. Its purpose is to communicate to all employees the literal meaning of the words ‘zero defects’ and the thought that everyone should do things right the first time.”

--Quality Is Free by Philip B. Crosby (McGraw-Hill Books, 1979)

Defects. They’re the bane of our existence as well as our reason for being as quality professionals. After all, if manufacturing and service processes were immaculate in their natural states, there wouldn’t be much call for ISO standards, Black Belts, metrology equipment, Baldrige awards or statistical process control.

That being said, the quest for zero defects can still be considered quality’s Holy Grail. In all industries, defects cost money, waste time and frustrate managers. In some (think pharmaceuticals or medical devices), production errors can cost lives. Everyone can agree that reducing defects is good for business, whatever your business may be.

Of course, there’s a huge difference between reducing defects and eliminating them, and therein lies the seeds of debate. Some would argue that a certain level of error--say, 3.4 defects per million opportunities--is acceptable. According to this perspective, the expenditures of money, time and effort necessary to achieve a zero defects state is simply not feasible in modern, high-production environments.

There’s also the matter of defining exactly how quality is to be achieved. The key to zero defects, like Six Sigma, lies in measuring and eliminating errors. Other systems, for example those embraced by proponents of standards such as ISO 9001, define the pursuit for quality in terms of the elimination of variation and nonconformities.

“It’s important to create a culture of prevention, which causes people to prevent defects and nonconformities,” says Kevin Weiss, CEO of The Capability Group and Philip Crosby Associates. “The message is clear: if you build and sustain a prevention-oriented culture, both defects and nonconformances are driven out of the organization.”

The cost of quality
In most cases, the biggest factor in a company’s quality program is cost. To paraphrase early 20th-century U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, the chief business of business is business. In other words, successful quality programs must represent money to the for-profit companies that undertake them--money that they earn, or money that they save. The pursuit of zero defects is justified only if it satisfies this requirement, the most important metric of all.

Philip Crosby asserted that quality is free in his book of the same name, which brought the concept of zero defects into the mainstream. Most managers would agree with the corollary that poor quality costs a great deal. Inefficient manufacturing processes can lead to scrapped materials and necessitate time-consuming and expensive rework, but preventing this through inspection and corrective action is costly, as well. This was recognized at least as far back as the 1940s, when early quality guru Armand V. Feigenbaum began to express inefficient manufacturing processes in the form of dollars lost.

Crosby furthered this idea by pointing out that preventing defects in the planning stages of a process is the cheapest and surest way to ensure quality. Flawed proc-esses, designed by leaders who haven’t fully worked out the ramifications of those flaws, are the ones most likely to lead to defective products and high inspection or rework costs. Managers set the tone for change within their working environments; workers on the shop floor follow the edicts set forth by their leadership. No amount of worker conscientiousness, professionalism, dedication or foresight can bring about a zero defects state in the absence of management’s commitment to creating processes that work.

Neither can inspection lead to zero defects; in this philosophy, inspecting finished product at the end of a process adds little but cost. Relying on inspection to ensure quality is the antithesis of zero defects thinking.

“When we inspect for quality, we hope to find any problems. When we prevent the problems from occurring, we cause quality to happen,” says Weiss.

Reducing defects vs. reducing variation
There are many roads to quality, each of which is represented by methodologies that attempt to encapsulate complex theories in simplified forms. The concept of zero defects is remarkable for its simplicity and directness: zero defects means just what it says.

But a process without defects doesn’t just happen. Performing tasks right the first time only works if you can do them right the next time, too. That’s where the concept of variation reduction comes in. A process cannot succeed enterprisewide if it can’t be repeated time and time again, exactly the same way on each and every occasion.

This is the view that underpins quality standards such as ISO 9001. The numerous clauses and subclauses can be maddening to organizations first approaching the standard, but the intent is clear: To make absolutely certain that every stakeholder in a particular system or process understands exactly how that system or process is to be undertaken. A company registered to ISO 9001 that undergoes regular audits is saying to its customers, “We have a process that works, and we complete that process in the same way every time.” In this way, conformance to standards isn’t just a goal; it’s a requirement that leads the organization toward the zero defects state.

Six Sigma is a recent attempt to combine all elements of quality into one system. Like Total Quality Management before it, Six Sigma offers the perspective that the best approach is one that unifies all available quality tools to build a system of process enhancement that drives out waste and inefficiency by reducing nonconformities. Defect reduction naturally occurs as a result. However, without a zero defects overview, bureaucracy can sink even the best of management intentions.

“Six Sigma and TQM are excellent methods for business improvement, but once problem solving starts, the organization’s culture takes over,” states Weiss. “Without a companywide commitment to zero defects, the more common goals of ‘improve the business’ or ‘reduce defects’ limit progress. Management asks, ‘What improvements can we make?’ and the answer is usually limited to the easy fixes.”

Zero defects success stories
Nelson Nameplate Co. of Los Angeles manufactures membrane switches, nameplates, graphic overlays and lenses. It’s been in business since 1946 and has earned a well-deserved reputation for quality processes and products.

“We believe that all work is a process,” says Tom Cassutt, co-president of Nelson. “By eliminating the possibilities of error in a process, we achieve continuous improvement and move closer to our goal of obtaining zero defects.”

Nelson was introduced to the concept of zero defects in the late 1980s, when co-president David Lazier first read Quality Is Free. Soon thereafter, the company made zero defects the goal for its manufacturing and delivery processes. Before implementing what Nelson calls its quality improvement process, the company meas-ured delivery performance by analyzing the percentage of backlog that was past due. Now, with zero defects in mind, management has established the goal of shipping each of 12,000 annual jobs on time. “We still haven’t achieved zero defects in this area, but every Nelson employee knows the goal of shipping on the exact date planned and is working toward meeting this goal as part of our commitment to continuous improvement,” says Cassutt.

Adopting the zero defects philosophy has had some impressive results for Nelson. The company has tracked its cost of quality on a monthly basis since February 1990. During that time, its cost of quality has decreased from 27 percent of sales to 16 percent of sales. The cost savings led to more competitive pricing and helped pay for the brand-new 117,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility that Nelson moved into in October 1999. Clearly, the emphasis on zero defects is working for Nelson Nameplate.

Others have demonstrated similar successes by bringing zero defects into their companies. CarboMedics Inc. of Austin, Texas, is a medical device manufacturer that specializes in heart valves. If ever there was a manufacturing process that demanded zero defects, this would be it. In its publication, the In-Plant Newsletter, Terry Marlatt, president of the company’s Cardio Prosthesis Division, relates the company’s journey to excellence using zero defects.

“Since December 1997 over 300,000 CarboMedics prosthetic heart valves have been implanted, with no reports of any post-implant mechanical failures. This is a record every manufacturer of mechanical valves is envious of,” writes Marlatt, in the article “300,000 Heart Valves With Zero Defects.”

CarboMedics’ senior managers made zero defects their priority after a lengthy debate over whether perfection was a realistic, achievable goal. But the objective was not perfection as an abstract principle but complete fulfillment of customer requirements every single time. “What is abstract about clearly understood customer requirements?” asks Marlatt. “It’s reasonable to expect us to meet customer requirements perfectly. 300,000 implants with zero mechanical defects is fact, not fantasy. This performance is in line with our quality policy and embodied in our quality statement: ‘CarboMedics Inc. will provide products and services that conform to customer requirements the first time, every time.’”

The number of heart valves that CarboMedics has implanted without mechanical defects now exceeds 500,000--and counting.

A perspective from Deming
In his book, Out of the Crisis (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Engineering Study, second edition, 1986), renowned quality guru W. Edwards Deming took issue with the concept of zero defects, deriding it as an example of management sloganeering with little meaning for the worker on the shop floor. Part of Deming’s argument stems from the idea that rating workers is nearly impossible--even if a bottom-line measurement such as defects is used.

As proof, Deming offered his now-famous red bead experiment, in which he filled a large vat with 4,000 beads--20 percent red, the remainder white, all mixed together randomly. Each of six people (workers) puts on a blindfold and draws 50 beads out of the vat. The challenge is to draw out only white beads, which represent “good” products that will be accepted by the customer; red beads are considered as defective products that will be rejected.

Not surprisingly, the six workers had a large variance in the number of red beads drawn--anywhere from four to 15. It’s easy to see that rating workers in this way is foolish. If a process has a 20-percent failure rate built into it from the beginning, worker competence is not the issue. If some workers happen to select fewer defects out of such a flawed system, that doesn’t necessarily point to their skill. By the same token, workers who have more defects aren’t necessarily inferior to their colleagues. Applying statistical methods to these figures, one finds that the upper and lower limits of variation in this case would be 16 and one, respectively. Thus, in this case, all six workers would fall within the control limits of the experiment.

Deming’s red bead experiment is meant to show the fallacy in judging workers in terms of defects, but in a larger sense, it points out the higher ground that Deming and Crosby both occupy on this issue. Simply put, it’s all about management. Workers may assemble the parts or staff the call centers, but they’re not ultimately responsible for the overall quality direction of the enterprise. It’s incumbent upon the leadership to create processes that work and result in quality products and services.

Zero defects in the real world
Human beings aren’t perfect; fallibility is one of the requirements for entrance into the club. But our processes and systems can approach perfection, even if we can’t achieve that state ourselves. The existence of human error is the reason why we install processes and systems in our most important tasks.

But zero defects isn’t about perfection. It’s about the understanding--on the part of every member of the organization-- that processes must constantly be improved, and that flawed or defective systems must be reworked and reorganized from the top down.

“Zero defects is an attitude and a performance standard,” states Weiss. “With a zero defects mind-set, each defect is rigorously traced to its root cause, and each cause is prevented. Management asks, ‘Are we completely eliminating this problem forever?’ and the organization searches for ways to say, ‘Yes.’”

For those who think that the quest for zero defects is impossible or, at the very least, too difficult or expensive a goal, Crosby had a ready answer: Defects are not inevitable, and they are not acceptable. As he wrote in Quality Is Free:

“People are conditioned to believe that error is inevitable. We not only accept error, we anticipate it. Whether we are designing circuits, programming a computer, planning a project, soldering joints, typing letters, completing an account ledger or assembling components, it does not bother us to make a few errors, and management plans for these errors to occur.... However, we do not maintain the same standard when it comes to our personal life. If we did, we would resign ourselves to being shortchanged now and then as we cash our paychecks. We would expect hospital nurses to drop a certain percentage of babies. We would expect to go home to the wrong house by mistake periodically. As individuals we do not tolerate these things. Thus we have a double standard--one for ourselves, one for the company.”

After 25 years, it’s time to stop accepting this double standard. Defects are not normally accepted events in life; there’s no reason that they should be accepted normally in service or manufacturing organizations. Zero defects have a place in the real world, as the ultimate standard by which all processes should be measured. Settling for less should never be an option.

About the author
Mike Richman is Quality Digest’s managing editor.