Our company's founder and president, Don Dewar, forwarded a letter to me a few days ago. It was from a friend of his in Australia who reads Quality Digest regularly. In his letter he asks, "What is Dirk Dusharme's background? He must have been in the quality game for a long time."
Splendid, I fooled another one. In fact, although I come out of the electronics industry, my closest brush with quality was as an inspector at Atari (employee No. 7) testing Pongs. Those of you under 30 years of age have no idea of what I'm talking about, do you? Pong: a 1970s consumer video game that attached to your television and played one game--ping pong. It sold for a little less than what an Xbox sells for today and had about as many problems as the latest Xbox. (See the News Digest story "Quality Damage Control" on page 10.)
Later, as an electronics engineer for a company that manufactured high-end perimeter-security devices, I worked with quality control people and developed a passing knowledge of what they were trying to accomplish with their control charts. But in no way was I ever a quality guy. But then, you don't need to be a quality guy to know what quality is, and that's why it amuses me to see the heated debates over Six Sigma, TQM, lean, ISO 9001, and [insert your program du jour here]. It's all so much dancing on the head of a pin.
I believe that everything you really need to know about quality you learned in kindergarten: Treat other people nice by not giving them broken toys (or cars, or baby bibs, or tires, or video games). Share your lunch, as long as it isn't tainted with E. coli. Keep your room clean and put your toys back where you got them (kindergarten 5S). Apologize when you make a mistake and then do something nice in return--otherwise known as customer service.
Not to be simplistic… but, simplistically speaking: Quality is just common sense. Everything else is tools. Have you ever watched a child try to accomplish a complex task, like climb up to the cookie jar? "Ugh! The kitchen chair is too heavy. I could try that folding step-stool thing but I can't figure out how to work it, and besides the last time I tried that, I pinched my fingers. Hmmm… maybe if I pull out the bottom drawer… yeahhh… and then the one just above it… hey, it's just like stairs."
The "proper" tool, the step-stool, was too complex, and he'd been bit by that one before. The next most obvious tool, a chair, looks a bit like a step-stool and works about as well, but is too cumbersome. The unlikely solution, pulling out drawers, worked just right. Scoff if you like. But who got the cookie?
There are no bad tools, just inappropriate or misused ones. Do you like Six Sigma? Go for it. Is TQM where your heart is? Brilliant, use it. Think the structure of ISO 9001 or some other quality management system will help keep you on track? Start typing that quality manual. Like the shotgun, or spaghetti-on-the-wall, approach? Fire at will. These are tools for quality, nothing more or less. What works for one company may, in fact, not work for another. Not because any one tool is inherently flawed, but because the users aren't comfortable with it, nor trained in it, or the tool isn't supported by the organization. I would argue that some companies, particularly very small ones, may not adapt well to any structured quality program.
If your goal is to treat your customers right, you will find a set of tools that work for you--even if they are, perhaps, unusual ones.