I’ve been writing about quality issues since 1984—23 long years. In that time I’ve interviewed hundreds of quality professionals, gurus, practitioners, authors, consultants—you name it. Although each person had a unique perspective on quality, each claimed that improved quality (usually as a result of following his or her quality recipe) was right around the corner.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve turned that corner. In fact, in my humble opinion, quality for the most part still stinks. (The “hard” side of quality—metrology—has actually made tremendous strides in the last two decades. Unfortunately, the “soft” side of quality—the human side—has fallen farther behind in many aspects, particularly with regard to service quality.)
Although we see excellent examples of design, product, and service quality all the time, I’m afraid the bad (or more precisely, the mediocre) still outweighs the good.
It’s getting to the point where we can’t even trust the food we eat, the bridges we drive over, the toys our children play with, the cars we drive in, or the pills we pop. When we do have a problem, we can’t really trust the so-called “customer service” representatives who are supposed to help us in our hour of need.
It’s frustrating that after going through zero defects, quality circles, total quality management, reengineering, benchmarking, ISO 9001, Six Sigma, lean, and all of their derivations, that quality is still so bad.
Many organizations have had great success with each of the aforementioned quality methodologies. Unfortunately, many have not. It seems to me that the ones that have been successful (and by that I mean have high-quality products and/or services; a happy, involved work force; a large and growing market share; and satisfied stockholders/stakeholders) have made these programs their own. They don’t “do” ISO 9001 for the sake of meeting customer requirements. They don’t have an employee involvement program because it’s hip; they don’t implement Six Sigma because the CEO’s golfing buddy’s company does.
A more telling sign of an organization’s success with these quality initiatives is that they’re done because the organization knows that they will result in better products and services, a happier work force, better sales, and long-term growth. The company integrates these programs without creating separate fiefdoms or waging war against the company culture. It’s just the way things work.
Before you send me the “Duh!” e-mail, stop and think about it. How many programs have you seen come and go over the years? Think about the successes and failures in your own organization. Think, too, about your experiences as a consumer. Are you really pleased with the products and/or services that your organization produces? More important, are your customers? How do you know? As I asked last month, how do you know you’re improving? How do you know that your customers are completely satisfied? Are you actively working to make sure that your customers’ needs are fulfilled now and will be in the future? Are you really content with the goods that you buy? Are you getting the kind of service that you want?
If you’re like me, the answer is no. I’m not satisfied as a business owner with my organization’s products and services. I want to make them better. As a consumer, I’m constantly amazed at the poor quality of the products that I buy. I’m often shocked at the inadequate service that I receive from customer service representatives. I’m leery of the food that I eat. I worry that my children might be playing with lead-tainted toys. (For this, I blame the company whose name is on the product, not the entire nation of China.) It just seems as though things are worse now than they were 20 years ago.
For example, flight delays and airline dissatisfaction are at their highest levels ever. New whiz-bang products are increasingly difficult to use. Online products and services are great unless they don’t work or you have a question, then good luck finding a real person to talk to for help. In fact, many companies go out of their way to avoid interacting with you. How many times when you call for assistance are you told to “go online”? And, perhaps most telling of all, aren’t you just delighted when you receive good service? If I actually get support with a problem or see someone go the extra mile to help, it really stands out, even though that’s what should happen every time.
You may be a quality manager at an organization. Your job may be to ensure that the widgets your company produces get out the door according to specifications. But what are you doing beyond that? Are you collecting data on customer satisfaction with your products, your services, your billing, your technical support, your Web site, your product design, your distributors, your packaging, your advertising? If you say that those tasks aren’t in your job description, then you just might not have a job down the road.
How does quality work in your organization? Is quality a way of life or an afterthought? Is quality built-in or tacked-on? What are you doing about it? Post your thoughts (anonymously, if need be) online at www.qualitycurmudgeon.com.
Scott M. Paton is Quality Digest’s editor at large.