As we approach the end of this century, it's natural to ponder the challenges facing us in the future. Several time-honored ways exist for making reliable predictions, and other methods remain for playing the psychic. We shall start with the first set and perhaps wander into the second.
Extrapolating from current trends represents one way to explore the future. Those changes in practices, technologies and methods showing promise today most likely will be extended and widely used tomorrow. A most promising trend is the extreme customer focus we're seeing in today's leading organizations. Companies as diverse as Dell, Levi Strauss and SunBryte -- an Ecuadorian rose grower -- produce products to individual customer specifications.
As more companies improve information technologies and implement just-in-time, lean production systems, we'll see an increasing number of made-to-order products and services. Managing quality in these systems will demand new quality control and assurance methods, intensive supplier qualification systems, and shared design and production information.
Buzzwords already are emerging for this new world as researchers and pundits talk about "sense and respond" systems replacing the former "make and sell" systems. The advantages of low- or no-inventory systems, no unsold or discounted merchandise and truly satisfied customers are so great that most organizations will move quickly to endorse these concepts.
A second force, the explosion of information technology, will drive change in ways we're just beginning to grasp. The Internet, with its promise of totally new distribution channels, customer information on unimagined scales and instant communication across continents, is changing the ways people think about business. We can now select hotel rooms, buy plane tickets, listen to and download music, browse newspapers from thousands of cities, and shop for almost every conceivable product without leaving our desk. Managing the quality of these transactions, services and products will demand new ideas, methods and tools.
A third force, virtual companies, also stretches our ability to manage quality. As companies follow the lead of Nike, Williams-Sonoma or Sara Lee and establish business partner networks rather than vertical or horizontal organizations, we'll find a vastly increased need for clear specifications, procedures and communication. Companies such as Volkswagen in Brazil now have suppliers install and test parts on the assembly line, which changes Volkswagen's role to coordinator and planner rather than manufacturer. Mercedes-Benz is exploring similar strategies in its new U.S. plant, and many other companies either are beginning to employ these ideas or watching Volkswagen and Mercedes carefully.
Imagining current trends taken to extreme limits offers another way to safely extrapolate the future. Customer focus has become essential. Nypro Clinton, for example, has reduced its customer base by more than 90 percent in order to become more customer-focused. By concentrating on a small number of good customers, the company can co-design and co-locate production facilities, and develop true business partnerships.
A surprising number of companies are moving in this direction. Other organizations are evolving rapidly into self-directing teams and flattening their management structure to the limit. SOL, a Finnish cleaning company, now employs only 13 managers in a 3,700-person company. It has eliminated almost all paper as well as clerical, secretarial and other nonvalue-added positions.
Riskier predictions include speculations about technological breakthroughs or other societal or managerial changes. What happens when information and communication become virtually free? Or when products and services become available anywhere in the world? How do we manage development teams comprising thousands of independent programmers scattered throughout the world, as they create a new operating system and make it available for almost nothing?
Many of the challenges to those of us working in quality are clear. Increasingly, information quality will become a critical issue. New methods and tools for managing across company boundaries will be essential. Old practices of price negotiations and contracts will have to change to new cooperative partnerships with rapid sharing of information, plans and methods. Our business process management must extend across company boundaries and into customer operations. Time cycles will continue to shrink, and information flows, decisions and changes will have to occur with lightning speed.
Already we're seeing quality training and methods extend from four-week "black belt" courses to six-month intensive training and application assignments. The statistical, managerial and business skills we'll need for these new challenges are just beginning to be identified.
About the author
A. Blanton Godfrey is chairman and CEO of Juran Institute Inc.
For more information about Juran Institute, write to 11 River Road, Wilton, CT 06897 or visit their Web site at www.juran.com .
© 1998 Juran Institute. For permission to reprint, contact Godfrey at fax (203) 834-9891 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .