Six Sigma
Last Word


Performance Improvement
H. James Harrington

It's Time to Stop Apologizing

Quality improvement hinges upon U.S. companies taking responsibility for their mistakes.

What's happened to the quality movement in the United States? In the late 1980s and early 1990s, quality was a major subject in the boardroom. Today it seems as though U.S. business is more reactive than proactive. American management rides a pendulum too far in the positive direction reacting to an individual problem and then swings back in the other direction as soon as the pressure is off. By the early 1980s, it was obvious that U.S. products had major quality problems that were causing us to lose a high percentage of our customers in many industries, including automotive, steel, ship building and electronics.

 Economic reality forced top management to convert their words into action. They agreed to fund quality initiatives, and some even went so far as to dedicate some of their precious time in support of these programs. Just about the time executives began to lose interest in quality, along came ISO 9000, which (due to pressure from customers and their potential customers) forced them to upgrade their quality systems. The improvement was substantial, and the executive committee was quick to take credit for it. A typical example was General Motors Corp.'s full-page advertisement in USA Today showing how the quality level of GM's cars had improved during the past decade and boasting that the delivered defect rate was only twice as bad as that of a Japanese car manufacturer.

 As U.S. organizations felt the heat dying down, they began to cut back again. The first indication of management's loss of interest in quality was NASA's Challenger disaster. Deep cutbacks in quality assurance organizations resulted because management felt they didn't need the checks and balances until that fatal day. The Hubble Space Telescope was another $1.5 billion blunder.

 People want to do a quality job, but even more, they want to do activities that can be measured so there's tangible evidence that the job's being done right. Schedule and cost are easy to measure, but quality risks aren't. As a result, schedule and cost will always come first if these are the categories by which people are measured. If the risks of poor quality are important to an organization, it won't measure everyone on cost or schedule.

 Today, top management isn't talking about the importance of quality; instead, they're on the radio and television and in newspapers and magazines apologizing for their organization's lack of quality.

 United Airlines' chief executive, James Goodwin, went on television last August apologizing for United's summer disruptions. He was trying to smooth the feathers of United's angry customers.

 Ford Motor Co.'s CEO, Jacques Nasser, was also eating humble pie: He went on the air apologizing to Ford owners for defective Firestone tires, pleading with them to come in and get free replacements. He stated, "I come before you to apologize to you, the American people…"

 Apologizing has been the trend for U.S. companies during the last decade. Intel apologized for faulty computer chips. IBM ran a full-page ad in Japanese newspapers apologizing for its computers' failure over a weekend. Coors Brewing Co. ran a full-page ad under the heading "We goofed" after selling a bad batch of beer. And every month there's a long list of new recalls. The examples go on and on. In Japan, when Toshiba executives publicly apologized for selling secrets to the former Soviet Union that made their submarines hard to detect, the executives resigned. When U.S. CEOs apologize, they fire some poor soul further down the organization's food chain.

 On the other hand, there are the Bridgestone/Firestone executives. They claimed, up to three days before they had to testify to Congress, that they were unaware a problem existed. (After all, the damage, injury claims and lawsuits that resulted from the now-famous quality crisis were a mere $3 million liability exposure.) Rather, they insisted they didn't realize that they had a problem until July 1999, when Ford provided them with an analysis that showed the magnitude of the problem their tires were creating.

 At the Congressional hearing, they admitted that they knew about the problem in the Decatur, Illinois, plant in January. The Decatur plant's tire separation rate was 4.5 times higher than that of tires from the next worst plant in Wilson, North Carolina. The bad tires were produced between 1994 and 1996, when a strike led the company to replace the regular employees with unskilled, inexperienced workers.

 "They knew, and didn't do anything about it," said Rep. Heather Wilson. "I was left with the impression that Firestone has a real lack of leadership."

 Telling the truth is hard for U.S. executives. It's the Bill Clinton thing: "I didn't do it, no matter the evidence." For some reason, it takes a large amount of courage for U.S. executives to accept responsibility.

 Every year we're deluged with thousands of recalls of both the U.S. and foreign products. It's time to stop apologizing and correcting. When will we get a quality system that prevents problems?


About the author

 H. James Harrington is COO of Systemcorp, an Internet-software development company. He has more than 45 years' experience as a quality professional and is the author of 20 books.

 Harrington is a past president and chairman of the board of both the American Society for Quality and the International Academy for Quality. E-mail him at jharrington@qualitydigest.com . Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com

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