Fighting Back

"Quality takes a beating.” So proclaimed the cover of the March issue of IndustryWeek magazine, complete with an illustration of a Superman look-alike with a Q on his ripped shirt, a black eye and a bump on the noggin. (There was also a reference to quality as “manufacturing’s favorite superhero.” I guess that description was the good news.)

The article (www.industryweek.com/readarticle.aspx?articleid=11444) based its “woe is quality” theme on the proliferation of product recalls in recent years. Indeed, recalls seem to make the news every day, and some—like Guidant’s notice to doctors last year of failures in certain defibrillators and pacemakers—are very troublesome, if not downright scary.

In 2004, U.S. manufacturers spent more than $25 million—4.8% more than in 2003—honoring product warranties, according to Warranty Week. But 63% of manufacturers saw a decrease in claims rates as a percentage of sales, the newsletter’s latest statistics show (www.warrantyweek.com). While only 20 of the top 50 U.S. based warranty providers continued to report declines in claims rates during the first six months of 2005, some declines were proportionally large—as much as 20% less than figures for the same period of 2004.

Still, $25 million means a lot of defects. And the manufacturing sector does not hold an exclusive on visible quality failures that directly impact customers. In healthcare, it’s the large number of deaths from medical errors. Though problems in education and service are more difficult to tie directly to quality failures, falling graduation rates among high school students and declining customer satisfaction scores for various service industries and companies make it clear quality could do better.

But if quality is really that bad and beaten down, how could the economy be improving, along with productivity and the job outlook? How could organizations be winning state and national quality awards?

The issue may partly be perception. With information bombarding us 24/7, bad news becomes magnified. Infotaintment rules: Negative stories are much easier to find, much juicier and sexier. Maybe organizations with good quality stories need to do a better job of telling them to break through the clutter.

I think quality often has a perception problem within organizations, too. In “Selling Quality Ideas to Management” (p. 27), Brien Palmer gives tips on how to communicate with executives and get support for quality initiatives. Hint: Your story should be about business success, not process capabilities— the point of our cover cartoon.

As a quality expert, you have the knowledge and skills to not only prevent problems but also create and advance ways to boost performance and customer satisfaction. Learning how to better communicate what you can do may be one of the best ways to help quality fight back.

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