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Columnist: H. James Harrington

Photo: Scott Paton, publisher


Are We Going Astray?

Let’s get back to basics.




What has happened to the quality professional? We talk and act more like we are part of the financial department rather than quality assurance. We say that our efforts are directed at ensuring that customers get what they want. We want them to be WOWED with our product and services. We tell everyone that quality function deployment is the way to get good design, but in fact, we don’t use it in most of our design processes. Less than 1 percent of our Six Sigma projects use quality function deployment as it should be used, taking design from the final product level to the component level. We are measuring ourselves in dollars saved or reduced cycle time, not in increased customer satisfaction or mean time to failure. We used to say, “Quality is first between three equals--quality, cost, and schedule,” but in our actions and Six Sigma reporting, we are putting it last.

Today, the quality professional is focused on cost reduction, not quality improvement. Six Sigma has created Black Belts, and it has justified them by telling management that each Black Belt will save $1 million per year--and if they don’t, they should be replaced. Now, I ask you, does that sound like a quality objective or a financial objective? I know of no one in finance whose job is contingent on saving a minimum of $1 million per year. You don’t have to have an IQ of 140 to realize that if your only measurement is in dollars, your focus is on reducing cost, not improving quality. I co-authored the book Improving Healthcare Quality and Cost with Six Sigma (Prentice Hall, 2007), which lists a number of Six Sigma projects that were implemented in different health care systems. In analyzing the first ten projects in the order in which they appear in the book, we find:

1. Staff support activities went from an $8 million loss per year to a $10 million profit.

2. Process changes to reduce processing time saved $900,000 per year.

3. A unit-based care team saved $400,000.

4. Combining billing and collection processes in one location saved $350,000 per year and eliminated 15 jobs.

5. Reduced inventory saved $2 million per year.

6. Redesigned Medicare paper-flow process saved $857,000 per year.

7. Hospitals guaranteed that emergency room patients would be attended to by a nurse within 15 minutes, with a doctor visiting within 30 minutes.

8. Uncollectible accounts were reduced from $8.1 million to $4.3 million over a three-year period.

9. Changing the process for hand washing, changing bandages, and making sure that catheters are removed as soon as possible cut infections in half, saving $165 million per year.

10. Changing laboratory procedures improved productivity by 43 percent.


Most of these projects, if not all, are process-redesign projects, not minimizing-variation projects. This is true not only of the health care industry, but of all industries that are using Six Sigma. For example, a rubber company using a Six Sigma program reduced the time to change a mold by 53 percent, increasing sales capacity by $525,000 of potential sales. Another example is a computer company that reported $2.3 million savings by better inventory controls as part of its Six Sigma program. I’m a CEO, and reducing inventory costs is important to me, as it should be to any organization. As for quality, however, it has little effect upon scrap, rework, or customer satisfaction unless I have poor inventory control. It should be something that the production control department should be worried about, not me. It has little to do with 3.4 defects per million opportunities.

From where I stand, CEOs around the world have lost much of their interest in quality. Why? Because the quality professional has lost focus on quality; we are more interested in reducing cost, removing waste, and reducing cycle time. Why is it that neither GE nor Motorola reported improved customer satisfaction when they were using Six Sigma? Was it because customer satisfaction was not improving or maybe even getting worse? Certainly Motorola lost a lot of its market during the 1980s, which would lead me to believe that customer satisfaction was going downhill.

Maybe it’s time we got back to basic quality measurements. We talk about getting to the root cause of problems. Well, I think we need to get to the root results of our actions by measuring the level of customer satisfaction improvement, the increase in mean time to failure, reducing percent defective during the first 90 days of usage, stopping product recalls, and lowering return rates--not dollars saved, inventory turns, or output per hour. We are trying to do everything for everybody, and as a result we are missing the real quality objective--better and better products and services.

About the author
H. James Harrington is CEO of the Harrington Institute Inc. and chairman of the board of e-TQM College Advisory Board. Harrington is a past president of ASQ and IAQ. He has more than 55 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 28 books. Visit his web site at www.harrington-institute.com.