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Scott M. Paton

If Quality Is So Good, Why Is Everything So Bad?

The quality curmudgeon takes on the good, the bad and the ugly.



It’s been several months since I moved from being the editor and publisher of Quality Digest to just the publisher. It’s been quite an adjustment, particularly not writing a monthly column. But after howls of protest from hundreds of readers for my column to return (OK, it was just one reader. Yes, it was my mom.), I’m back. I just couldn’t stand not getting my two cents worth in each month. Plus, as our new editor in chief will attest, I usually get the last word anyway.

My goal for this column is to be a little edgy and in-your-face. I want to talk frankly about the state of quality today: the good, the bad and the ugly. I want to take on issues that affect quality professionals: downsizing, outsourcing, mandated quality management systems, compliance issues, equipment, human resources, training and the like. Quality professionals suffered greatly during the recent economic downturn, dealing with layoffs, delayed equipment upgrades, slashed budgets and more. It’s unlikely that they’ll see radical improvements in their positions in the near future despite the improving economy.

I’d like to start this new year and new column with a look at the state of quality in America today. Frankly, it’s not so good. But take heart; it’s not your fault. The quality profession has made tremendous strides by implementing quality management systems like ISO 9001 and throwing piles of money at programs like Six Sigma. You’ve done your job despite cutbacks, ever-more demanding customers, government regulations, European Union mandates and a lack of respect from management.

“We have the best quality our ISO 9001-registered, Six Sigma-certified, CE marked, environmentally friendly organization can make,” CEOs boast. But if quality is so good, why do U.S. auto-makers continue to lose market share? Why are manufacturing jobs moving to China and call centers to India? Why do airlines treat passengers like unwelcome guests? (I almost said like cattle, but at least cattle get fed.) Why has every major appliance in my home needed to be serviced at least once in the last year even though all are less than two years old? Why is it that despite advances in dimensional measuring equipment that let us measure to practically the sub-atomic level, quality is so dismal?

The problem is not with you, quality professional. The problem lies with management. Despite all the lessons learned from the Japanese quality revolution, TQM, ISO 9001, Six Sigma and other programs, senior management still doesn’t get quality, let alone take it seriously. Few corporations have a chief quality officer. Few discuss quality on a regular basis during board meetings or within their executive enclave.

CEOs obsess over finance but pay little attention to quality. Most CEOs come from finance or marketing backgrounds. Plus, managers have little, if any, formal education related to quality. To get a degree in business administration you must take numerous classes in finance, accounting, marketing and management. How many business schools require students to take even one class in quality? How many universities or colleges even offer a basic quality course?

The closest senior management has come to understanding quality has been with the Six Sigma movement. GE’s Jack Welch made Six Sigma sexy, and his fellow ivory-tower inhabitants jumped on the Six Sigma bandwagon to keep up with the Welches.

Six Sigma has primarily been implemented by large corporations that have pockets deep enough to fund the massive training and material requirements Six Sigma needs. Few small organizations, which make up the majority of businesses in the United States, have figured out how to implement successful Six Sigma programs.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against Six Sigma. In fact, I like its disciplined approach to solving problems, and I especially like that it focuses senior management on quality. I just don’t think its use is widespread enough (or ever will be) to broadly affect quality.

ISO 9001, which some Six Sigma disciples disparage, has had a broader effect on the quality of goods and services globally than Six Sigma ever will. More than 500,000 organizations around the world have ISO 9001-registered quality management systems. Unfortunately, ISO 9001--even in its current revision--fails to focus senior management seriously enough on quality to bring about world-class quality in an organization.

Until senior management places the same emphasis on quality that it does on finance, marketing and sales, quality will continue to languish. I’m not talking about just participating in a management review as part of the ISO 9001 process or reviewing Six Sigma projects’ progress. I mean real, deep commitment to designing, building and delivering world-class products and/or services--the kind of stuff that managers get passionate about.

Look at Apple Computer, for example. Pundits have been predicting the death of Apple for years. But its market value is at an all-time high. Why? Watch Apple CEO Steve Jobs when he’s talking about the iPod, Apple’s hot product. He’s like a kid in a candy store. Jobs clearly wants Apple to make money, but what he really wants is to deliver really cool stuff that he’s excited about. He knows that if he thinks something is really cool a lot of other people probably will, too.

I think the iPod is a pretty cool product. (In fact, I’m listening to mine as I write this.) But you don’t have to make high-tech gadgetry to make world-class products. Talk to winners of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award about what their companies do. It doesn’t matter if they make steel tubes, semiconductors, food products, sell hotel rooms or grind rocks; these folks are passionate about what they’re doing. They view quality as an integral part of everything that their organizations do, from design and development to manufacturing to delivery to after-sale service.

Unfortunately, only a handful of organizations win the Baldrige Award each year. The mainstream media has largely ignored this truly worthwhile business award. In addition, organizations like the Big Three automakers don’t require their suppliers to apply for the Baldrige Award or use the Baldrige criteria like they do ISO 9001 and its derivatives, such as ISO/TS 16949.

Unfortunately, if you work for an organization that doesn’t have senior managers who are passionate about what your organization is doing there isn’t much you can do to make it better.

When management is more concerned with making money than delivering great products and/or services, the organization inevitably runs aground. Look at WorldCom, Enron, Adelphia and Tyco, just to name a few. Senior managers at those organizations were more concerned with stock value and their own bonuses than they were with the products they were selling.

If you work for such an organization, my advice is to update your resumé and look for an organization where management is passionate about quality. At the very least, be passionate about what you’re doing and what’s going on in your department. Make your next audit or improvement project or whatever other challenge you face the best you can. If you aren’t passionate about the results, can you expect anyone else to be?

I’d like to know what you think about the state of quality today. Send your comments to us using the comments address below. Also, let me know what issues you think Quality Digest should be covering in more detail and what other pots you’d like to see me stir.


About the author
Scott M. Paton is Quality Digest’s publisher.