Six Sigma
Last Word


Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Avoiding Quality Traps

With all of the progress we've made in quality, it's astounding the number of mistakes--from petty slips to company-quashing blunders--made in quality's name. Even though none of the following three points warrants a complete column in itself, organizations in pursuit of quality improvement need to take all three to heart.

"For quality purposes, this call may be recorded…"

 This ubiquitous, annoying little recorded message that precedes (in one form or another) so many of our conversations with "Corporate America" has probably done the quality revolution in the United States more damage than reengineering has. There must be a better word or phrase that these companies could use without implying that what they are doing has anything to do with continual improvement, empowerment or quality.

 How about, "Because we don't train our people very well before we put them on the phones, we eavesdrop from time to time" or "We pay our people so poorly that we need to make sure their surly attitudes don't show through too much, so we'll be listening in from time to time" or "We're trying to catch a couple of our employees who have deviated from their scripts a few times, promising we'd fulfill our guarantees, so don't be surprised if you hear a tape recorder going"? Say what you must, but please don't call it "quality."

Six Sigma as a religion

 Six Sigma, introduced into the quality vocabulary and corporate methodology by Motorola when it won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1988, is a marvelous tool. Too often, however, it ends up as more of a religion (with various colors of "belts" substituting for ceremonial robes and a priesthood that is separate from the commoners) than it is a means for helping ensure continual improvement.

 It needs to be remembered that at Motorola, the people being measured were very involved in choosing what measurements would be taken to serve as accurate indications of their performance and rate of improvement. There are, after all, only two legitimate uses for measurement in the context of a quality effort: to use the data at a source of ideas for improvement and to check progress against expectations. If progress is falling short of expectations, refer to the first reason. The moment in which measurements begin to be used for punishment will precede the moment when people will start lying about those measurements by about 12 seconds.

ISO 9000 as a quality cure-all

 We wish we could take credit for the assessment that "ISO 9000 is the death rattle of the old-line quality control guys," but it's properly credited to the first director of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, Curt Reimann. He said it at about the same time that he co-authored (with the current head of the Baldrige program, Harry Hertz) a study that showed that ISO 9000 covered approximately 10 percent of the concepts and practices that the Baldrige Award did.

 ISO 9000 has gotten better, of course. With each improvement, it gets closer and closer to the Baldrige. One question remaining is if there is a target date for when the ISO folks will simply duplicate the Baldrige.

 But how did ISO 9000 get to be so big? Well, when the Quality Revolution got rolling in the mid-80s, fueled by W. Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran (who together gave it a brain) and Tom Peters (who gave it a heart), the direction in which it headed rattled the folks who had grown up in quality control. The emphasis began to broaden to include emotional stuff and people stuff--all very uncomfortable for those accustomed to dealing with a very small percentage of the workforce and managerial personnel and, then, strictly on a rational, look-at-my-charts basis.

 At this point in time (late 1980s), both U.S. and Japanese goods and services (relatively high in quality compared to the European options) began to mount an invasion of the European marketplace--much as Japanese goods had done to the American marketplace a decade or more before. ISO 9000 was the European commercial world's defense. ("ISO" is rumored in some circles to actually be an acronym for a Bulgarian phrase meaning "European trade barrier.") And it worked: It slowed things down enough for many European companies to get their acts organized and remain competitive.

 Meanwhile, in the United States, the besieged quality control guys looked at ISO 9000, with its impersonal and often arbitrary procedures, and cried out, "Hallelujah! Déjà vu!" The then-aptly-named American Society for Quality Control embraced ISO 9000, the quality control consultants hurried to become certified, and the international standard became a presence. And, to be fair, it's not a bad place to start a quality effort if an organization has never previously done anything in the way of an improvement effort or if its customers insist.

 A company looking at going down the ISO 9000 path should always keep in mind the assessment of Motorola's quality director after that Baldrige-winner had, because of pressure from customers, made the investment to get 31 of its locations/divisions ISO 9000-certified: ROI = 0.


About the authors

 Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt are popular authors and columnists for QualityDigest.com. E-mail them at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com .

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