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  Performance Improvement    by H. James Harrington

To Tell or Not to Tell

Why are quality professionals so willing to share their approaches to improving quality?

Quality is a competitive advantage. Most of us agree with that statement. I know I've heard it thousands of times, and I've used it myself hundreds of times, so it must be true. Do you agree?

If you do, then consider a company that has developed a revolutionary design that gives it a competitive advantage. Would that company give copies of the drawings to its competitors? Quite unlikely. Why, then, are we, as quality professionals, so willing to share our approaches to improving quality?

   Product engineering jealously guards its many deep, dark secrets. Quality en-gineers and quality managers, on the other hand, share every new breakthrough with anyone who will listen to them. We are fortunate to be    engaged in a young profession that has maintained an open, worldwide research-sharing communication policy. How different the world would be if Xerox had patented benchmarking, IBM had patented reengineering, Ishikawa had patented quality circles and Motorola had patented       Six Sigma.

Maybe organizations are so open about their quality approaches because so many people within an organization need to be involved that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep quality approaches secret. Or perhaps they are so general in nature, focusing as they do on human behavioral patterns, that very little real creativity is associated with the methods we develop.

After all, how do you patent concepts such as "do it right every time," "strive for continuous improvement," "develop teamwork," "involve employees in the decisions that affect them" or "be customer-focused"?

When you think about it, quality means looking logically at an organization and defining what should be done -- a few statistical formulas notwithstanding. Note that I didn't use the term "common sense," although that was what first came to mind, because quality certainly isn't that. If it were, then we would have it deeply embedded within us already. Quality must be uncommon sense.

Almost everyone agrees with quality concepts, but most people regularly compromise these concepts to save time, money or effort. There is a cancerous   condition that plagues the United States today that I call Don't-give-a-damn Complex or That's-good-enough Syndrome. This cancerous condition has been, and is, bringing down the giants of industry.

Today, as never before, good enough is not good enough. Only our very best will allow us to overcome the challenges that face the United States now and in the future. It's imperative that a permanent remedy be found to replace the stopgap measures we've been using.

In truth, there are no deep, dark secrets in the quality methodologies. They are available to all of us. Anyone in the world can deliver superb quality because the technology is well-defined and documented. The difference between success and failure doesn't rest with the quality methods; it depends instead upon how these are implemented and managed. Quality is a competitive advantage solely because most organizations manage their quality systems poorly.

The following comprise the basic elements that impact the quality output of all organizations: materials, resources, quality methods, processes and product design. Only two of these five elements -- resources and quality methods -- aren't closely guarded by organizations to protect their competitive advantages.

Will a time come when organizations begin to believe that their quality methods are truly a competitive advantage and stop sharing them with the general public? Or is that already happening? It seems that fewer new and exciting ideas are being discussed at conferences or published in magazines today than were during the '70s and '80s.

Since 1990, only the following three relatively new and exciting quality approaches have been embraced: process redesign, quality management systems (such as ISO 9000) and quality models designed around national or international quality awards. In truth, none of these ideas are new but rather regroupings of already recognized and established performance improvement approaches.

The lack of new breakthrough approaches may mean that organizations are holding back their quality advances in order to gain a competitive advantage. Currently, my clients are less willing to let me use detailed examples of their new quality processes and accomplishments than they were a decade ago. Or, the scarcity of new approaches also might indicate that the quality profession has reached the apex of its development. Now that it's understood and well-defined, new concepts are seldom developed.

I hope it's the latter. What do you think?

About the author

H. James Harrington is a principal at Ernst & Young and serves as its international quality advisor. He can be reached at 55 Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA 95113; telephone (408) 947-6587,  fax (408) 947-4971, e-mail jharrington@qualitydigest.com . Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com .


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