Quality Breakdowns: An Opportunity in Disguise


Zahn, Douglas A.   (1988, ASQC)   Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL

Annual Quality Congress, Dallas TX    Vol. 42    No. 0
QICID: 3399    May 1988    pp. 56-62
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Article Abstract

A systematic approach to the improvement of quality is what the quality revolution is all about. Curiously, quality professionals are not systematically applying their tools to the services they provide. A potential clue to this may be in their answers to the question "What is the toughest problem you encounter in your work?" Over 90% of the time they describe nontechnical problems occurring in situations such as these:

  • Quality personnel are often not welcomed by plant managers they are told to visit. In fact, they have the sense that the manager immediately begins to develop plans for how the visit can be shortened.
  • An engineer agress to a quality improvement program, has no questions about it, leaves the meeting, and then does not implement the program.
  • A manager shows up with a major quality problem on a product set for production next week.
  • An engineer has been sent by management and clearly does not want to be meeting with a quality professional.
Possibly, quality professionals have assumed that their technical tools are not useful on these nontechnical problems. Another possibility is that, being aware of the upset that often occurs when they use their tools and find a quality problem, they may consciously or unconciously avoid this upset by not using tools that might reveal a problem with their services.

As the above situations indicate there are problems associated with the services quality professionals provide. Some interactions do not end to the satisfaction of all parties involved. When this happens, a breakdown has occurred, using Webster's New World Dictionary definition of "breakdown" as "failure to work or function properly." Breakdowns frequently occur in our daily activities. They may be small, as when one is five minutes late for an appointment, or large, as when a project is completed six months late and substantially over budget. Breakdowns can and, in reality, do occur at one time or another in a professional's relationship with clients, employers, employees, or colleagues. They also occur in research projects. In fact, a breakdown in a research project often results in an interaction between professionals. Thus, dealing with breakdowns and their consequences is a frequent task in any professional's life.

My colleagues and I have notices that the typical response to breakdown is one or more of the following: embarrassment, guilt, anger, blame, indignation, confusion, denial, ridicule, justification, revenge, or excuses. Since quality professionals must deal with breakdowns of their own services to which they will react strongly and breakdowns in their clients' processes to which their clients will react strongly, the task confronting them demands skills in addition to their technical expertise. They must also have a clear understanding of the nature of breakdown and their reactions to it, as well as a specialized knowledge and skill necessary to interact effectively with others when breakdowns occur. Then these negative, ineffective, defensive reactions can be replaced by positive, effective responses so that the opportunity that is inherent in any breakdown can be discovered.

This paper introduces an approach to nontechnical problems which will systematically improve the quality of a quality professional's services. This approach blends the scientific method, applied statistics and quality improvement concepts, applied psychology, videotapes of interactions, and coaching to improve the quality of communications between and among professionals. A case study illustrates the strategy and how it has produced findings that improve service quality. Steps to implement this approach are described.


Quality improvement (QI),Quality tools,Statistics,Case study,Internal customer

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