Six Sigma
Last Word


Performance Improvement
H. James Harrington

Can Quality Help?

Why don't high-tech companies care about quality?

The basic role of the quality department is to ensure customer satisfaction. Things like equipment certification, design review, testing, inspection, supplier qualification, scrap-rate reduction and process qualification are all secondary or support activities. The quality organization's real responsibility lies in ensuring that the customers' requirements are understandable and that the product and/or service meet these requirements. Your quality system has failed every time there is a recall or a customer complaint.

 It's time we started to have true Six Sigma companies. I know that IBM, GE, Motorola, Xerox and AT&T aren't Six Sigma companies. Playing the Six Sigma game--looking at all the possible ways an output can be measured and summing them up to claim the item meets the Six Sigma objective--doesn't make anyone happy except the person doing the calculation. This kind of activity doesn't meet the quality requirement from a customer's standpoint: Either it works or it doesn't. If my AT&T Internet line isn't up 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it's a defect. If it's down for one hour, it needs to be up for the next one million hours (or the next 100 years), or AT&T isn't a Six Sigma company. I have yet to see a Xerox copier that performs at the Six Sigma level. If mine is up 80 percent of the time, I'm lucky, and that's about a two-sigma level. If I screw in a GE light bulb and it doesn't work, the next one million light bulbs must work, or GE isn't a Six Sigma company from the customer's standpoint. Motorola's design isn't Six Sigma, or the company wouldn't have lost such a big share of the market. It's time we forget about this Six Sigma hokum and focus on what really counts, shipping error-free products and providing error-free service--not just error-free at delivery but error-free over the life of the product.

 Real Six Sigma companies don't need help desks. They give warranties that cover the life of their products. They are the Craftsman-type companies that stand behind their product forever and don't hide behind their contracts to limit their obligation. In my view, there are only a few service organizations that are even at the three-sigma level at delivery, let alone six. Certainly, the airlines aren't, nor are the retail stores. And the high-tech organizations (particularly the software providers) are even worse than the service organizations.

 I've been told time and time again that you can't expect software to be error-free. That's the kind of attitude that kills an organization's reputation. I can't think of any reason customers shouldn't expect the software they buy to be error-free; I expect it to be error-free. The problem is that our high-tech and information technology managers have very low quality standards and pass their minimal expectations on to their employees. As a whole, they ship too soon, test too little and don't understand their customers' capability level or requirements. It's about time that the high-tech companies start setting quality standards that are as good as those of the so-called low-tech organizations. Why can't we make a software package that is as error-free as the food I buy at Albertson's or Safeway? Can you imagine food products so unreliable that the makers would say you can't expect to not get food poisoning from them?

 This entire high-tech industry simply doesn't care about its customers. When e-mail service for IBM.com changed to ATTGlobal.net, I spent weeks and endured many long, disturbing phone calls before I realized I needed to go back into my address book and look up all of the entries to see if I needed to change them from @ibm.com to @attglobal.net.

 My DSL provider did away with its toll-free remote-access number without telling me. I was in Boise, Idaho, when I found this out after calling the company. Then, when I tried to log in, it didn't work, so after trying everything I could think of for more than an hour, I called back. After a long conversation, I was told that the company had changed servers and failed to log in my ID. The customer service representative said he would do it and call me back in 15 minutes. After an hour and a half, I tried it again but still couldn't do it. So I made another call. This time, the person at the help desk gave up and told me I needed to talk to someone more technical, but he was busy. To skip to the end of this story, after spending more than 10 hours and $43 in phone calls trying to get my e-mail working, it still didn't work.

 Why don't the high-tech companies care?

 I'm against any quality methodology that doesn't start by taking customer requirements and needs into account first. High-tech firms are quick to add features, even if they get in the way of the majority of their users and result in additional customer defects. Microsoft is an excellent example of an organization that drives technology at the expense of the quality of its products. Seibel, on the other hand, takes a great deal of pride in its products' performance in the customer application. The real question is, "Is the American public willing to sacrifice quality for the latest bells and whistles?" Looking at Microsoft's success, the answer would appear to be "Damn the quality; full speed ahead with technology!"


About the author

 H. James Harrington is COO of Systemcorp, an Internet-software development company. He was formerly a principal at Ernst & Young, where he served as an international quality adviser. He has more than 45 years' experience as a quality professional and is the author of 20 books. Harrington is a past president and chairman of the board of both the American Society for Quality and the International Academy for Quality. Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com. E-mail him at jharrington@qualitydigest.com .

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