Six Sigma
Last Word


Performance Improvement
H. James Harrington

Killing the Quality Bugs

Planning and prevention will save you time and money in the long run.

Bugs, bugs, bugs. We're always fighting bugs. When our computers have bugs, we have to reboot them. Bugs in our cars keep them from starting. And bugs in the accounting system keep us from being reimbursed for travel expenses. Indeed, one could define a quality professional as a highly paid exterminator. We spend our careers hunting out bugs and trying to kill them.

 I wonder where all the bugs we kill go. Do they go to "bug heaven"? I hope not. I wish they went to "bug hell," but I'm sure that's not the case. Instead, I believe they go to "bug purgatory," where they wait to

be reincarnated to come back to harass us again. I think this must be the case because I'm still killing the same bugs that I killed back in the 1950s; for example, when someone records a 1 that looks like a 7; someone doesn't completely punch out the hole in the ballot, so the vote doesn't get recorded; the marketing department projects that the market is much bigger than it actually is; the marketing department projects that the market is much smaller than it actually is.

 Why do these problems come back to attack us year after year? People who work in the United States are the best problem solvers in the world because we get so much practice. In the 1980s we trained everyone we could get to sit through classes on how to solve problems. Just consider the quality profession's basic tools, which include:

  Scatter diagrams

  Fishbone diagrams


  Pareto analysis


None of these are preventive tools; rather, they're diagnostic tools designed to correct existing problems. Everybody uses the plan-do-check-act process. With all respect to Walter Shewhart, who developed this process, it was a good approach in the 1920s when he created it, but it's outdated in today's customer-driven business environment. Today, the improvement star needs five points, not four:







 Without the fifth step, prevention, you kill the dragon, but not the six eggs hatching in her nest. This reminds me of my days at IBM in San Jose. Every Friday we would have a product status review that included production control, product engineering, manufacturing engineering, quality engineering, manufacturing and field engineering. Production control would report that 1,827 of the part numbers required to meet next week's shipping schedule were in, but two part numbers were missing.

 This was obviously a major problem, so all of the members of IBM's team would come together to develop an action plan. Some people had to fly back to IBM's suppliers to help them solve their problems. Receiving inspection personnel visited the suppliers to inspect parts as they rolled off the line. If everything worked like clockwork, the missing parts would be in San Jose by 8:00 a.m. Monday. Top management would schedule a meeting for 9:00 a.m. on Monday to review status and take additional action if required. At the Monday meeting, production control would report that the parts were in and everyone would sigh with relief. Production control had saved the day.

 In most organizations, the best way to get recognition is to create a problem that you know you can solve. At IBM, production control wasn't a lifesaver, but a disaster. Management only recognized production control's importance when the department did a bad job and corrected it. This is often true in many--if not all--parts of a business. When everything goes right, the people who are doing a good job are overlooked. People who prevent problems live in the shadows: It's hard to be a hero and save the village from the dragon if you've kept the dragon from invading in the first place. Top management likes people who solve problems even if they created them in the first place. Why? It's because most of top management got where they are because they were good problem solvers and they like to surround themselves with these types of people.

 The name of the game today, however, is prevention and risk mitigation. We need to prevent problems occurring today from happening tomorrow or in future generations of products and services. We need to analyze not only what we're doing, but also what we're going to do to identify things that could go wrong so we can develop strategies to offset the negative consequences if problems do occur. Every business plan and every project plan needs to be designed to minimize risk and prevent problems from occurring. Today's business leader should learn from the great chess masters. They always plan two, three or even four moves in advance, taking into consideration all of the potential alternatives at each step in the process.

 This isn't just my idea. The Project Management Institute has just rewritten the "Project Management Body of Knowledge" to place more emphasis on risk management. Now if only they would address organizational change management, they would have a really complete approach to project management.


About the author

 H. James Harrington is COO of Systemcorp, an Internet-software development company. He has more than 45 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 20 books. E-mail Harrington at jharrington@qualitydigest.com . Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com .

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