Six Sigma
Last Word


Quality Management
A. Blanton Godfrey

Is Quality Dead?

Solving today's quality problems requires a return to the basics.

Every day, news headlines seem to include yet another quality disaster story. For weeks we've been reading the charges and countercharges between Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone. And it's not clear who's at fault. What is clear is that the tires came apart on the highway and that people are dead. The newspapers are full of stories of skipped inspections, known problem tires being shipped and other quality breakdowns. And while this tire story was still on the front pages, an Air France Concorde crashed, most likely due to another tire problem. Then Mitsubishi admitted to having hidden automotive customer complaint data for more than 20 years.

 Quality problems abound. I picked up a magazine the other day and found an article about how bad airline service is ("Fly the Angry Skies," New York Times Magazine, Sept. 24). The Sept. 18 issue of Fortune featured an article on so-so software, "What Ever Happened to Great PC Software?"

 The old question "Is quality dead?" now means "Does anybody have a clue about how to manage quality?" After all of these years of major quality achievements, how can so many companies still have these problems? The answer for some companies, such as airlines and software makers, is fairly straightforward: They've never implemented even the most basic of quality systems in the first place.

 Airlines in particular create incredibly high expectations and then deliver truly miserable service. "We were told to expect medium-rare chateaubriand and exotic fondues and white linen antimacassars gentling our dreamy heads and fancy French wine all around and the bell ring of sterling flatware," writes Jeff MacGregor in "Fly the Angry Skies." Instead, we receive "a $1,200 coach seat half the width of a human pelvis, a mismatched pair of circus peanuts and the in-flight director's recut of 'Bicentennial Man.' Behold, air rage. This has been the season of discontent for enraged passengers and the various carriers who brand, herd and ship them from point to point."

 We have endured record delays and flight cancellations, flight attendants asking for more security, fights over carry-on baggage, air-traffic experts and the secretary of transportation convening summits to discuss why we're having so many problems, and pilots calling in "sick" in conflicts over pay. Airlines respond with offers for free flights. "Some airlines are even handing out free frequent-flyer miles to compensate disgruntled passengers," writes MacGregor. "Which is pretty gallingly rich: 'Now that you're sure you'd rather rot in a Jalalabad prison than ever fly with us again, c'mon back!'"

 Likewise, quality problems are rampant in the software industry. In "What Ever Happened to Great PC Software," Stewart Alsop cries that the software he uses "really sucks." He believes that the position of software companies is that fixing and upgrading their products is neither useful nor profitable. He reports that in August he succumbed to an offer to upgrade Microsoft's Internet Explorer to version 5.5. He downloaded and installed the software and restarted his computer as instructed. His computer promptly became inoperable. He couldn't even turn it off. It took more than a day to get the computer working again--without Internet Explorer 5.5. His new Quicken 2000 upgrade runs three times slower than Quicken 98; it takes a full minute to open the simple checkbook. He hasn't been able to figure out what he's gotten in return for a much slower program. A free version of Adobe's ActiveShare intended to entice customers to buy the deluxe version was so awful the strategy backfired. He doesn't want any more of the company's software.

 The answer to the question about how these quality problems are still occurring for other companies is also straightforward. Quality management is an extremely tough business. Not only must we continually apply the best known methods and tools, but we must stay focused on what is truly important. Even the smallest slip can lead to disastrous results--results that can destroy a company's reputation and profits in a very short time.

 There are a number of common problems in these examples. Customers are infuriated when they're promised far more than is delivered. These promises can be explicit, as in the airline ads, or implicit. Customers expect tires to not come apart on the highway. They expect software upgrades to work better than the old versions. They expect new software to not kill their computer. They expect someone to answer the phone quickly and be able to answer questions and provide service. It's actually pretty simple: Customers expect products and services to conform to specifications--either written specifications or implied ones.

 It's time to go back to basics. Promise only what you can deliver. Create quality management systems to ensure that you deliver what you've promised. Measure quality at every stage and make sure that products work and services meet expectations. Continuously improve your knowledge about customers needs, wants and expectations. Admit to problems quickly and fix them!

 Those are the basics. To actually survive in business we must do more. We must not only deliver what the customer wants, needs and expects; we must do it better than others offering similar products and services. And we must do it at a better price. That's all.


About the author

A. Blanton Godfrey is dean and Joseph D. Moore Professor at the College of Textiles, North Carolina State University. E-mail him at agodfrey@qualitydigest.com .


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