Lapses in Quality

Three companies, three approaches. But did any work?

by Darrick Dean

This past year marked my 10th year in the quality industry. It seemed an opportune time to look back at how the various companies I have worked for approached quality. In an era when quality is a manufacturing and business catchphrase, the way these companies achieved it varied widely.

One of these industries practiced what I called "quality when necessary." There weren't any quality standards in place or improvement programs, and no one in the plant ever said the word "quality." Quality was achieved after the fact—when products were returned. Production would look for those particular defects for a time, until they moved on to the next thing. Nothing but the most basic inspections were performed, and the causes of the defects never were determined.

Occasionally, there was a lecture from management with regard to caring about one's job, but there was little attempt to explain how to improve or the incentive for doing so.

Doing it right the first time

The second company also had no formal quality standards or procedures in place, and there was no companywide quality culture. It was simply a matter of trying to follow the blueprints from the customer—without seeking guidance from them—then hoping the end product came out right. The first time customers found out whether their expensive item conformed to specifications was on delivery.

Employees seemed to establish their own methods of achieving job requirements, such as creating their own standards to meet what they interpreted as the customer requirements. As one can imagine, the results weren't always what the customer wanted. This method also caused major rework when problems were caught in the plant. The company, at least, undertook "official" inspection of critical items, such as welds. Occasionally, there was a procedure for the workers to follow, though it was usually informal and relayed by word of mouth.

Shortly after leaving the second company, and before re-entering industry, I briefly worked for a major retail operation. Quality was applied the same way as at any other company, industrial or otherwise. A retail store's product is its service of distributing goods manufactured by various suppliers.

The success of the retail product relies on three tenets. The first two are providing excellent customer service and maintaining an efficient operation to maintain low prices. Here, quality was paramount. Personnel were trained extensively in customer service, maintaining the store and inventory.

This quality of service is what all retail stores, restaurants and banks—successful ones, anyway—must constantly strive for to achieve acceptable profit margins, which are often lower per store than in a single manufacturing plant.

The third, and perhaps most significant tenet is to be vigorous in removing poor quality products from its shelves. If suppliers don't maintain high quality, as we witnessed with recent recalls of Chinese goods, a negative financial cascade effect ripples through other companies. A poor product not only impacts the initial manufacturer, but many other companies and individuals.

Standardize and simplify

The final company I will discuss is the largest of the manufacturing plants for which I have worked. As their production grew quickly, so did returns. An extensive system of quality procedures and inspections was implemented. Standardizing and simplifying product specifications, and the methods for approving them, allowed everyone to be on the same page.

Not all gray areas were completely eliminated. For example, surface quality on a product can be subjective from customer to customer and inspector to inspector. More and more customers, however, are moving to a zero tolerance requirement (no visual defects of any sort at any level). In most cases, the use of go/no-go gauges and graded dimension tolerances has eliminated guesswork from quality issues.

Returns of defective products began to drop over time, though perhaps not as fast as they could have. Extensive training and communication in regard to the new quality paradigm didn't always arrive as quickly as the quality methods.

Quality as a front-runner

When quality succeeds, as it did at this company, there is inherent danger of people becoming complacent. Quality is no longer seen as critical as long as everything is going well. Low returns aren't necessarily an indicator that problems aren't lurking in the background.

During times of few defects, proactive steps to improve quality methods and prevent defects before they happen often get sidelined. Audits and continuous training can address this problem.

However, the audits and training need to focus on issues that directly impact quality. Companies should periodically pose these questions for each procedure or activity undertaken for quality's sake:

  • Does this actually improve the quality of the end product?
  • If not, how can we change it, or should we eliminate it?
  • What do we do simply because we always have done it?

Notice these questions address efficiency and time spent on tasks. Quality is affected by time wasted on activities that don't improve quality. Replace those tasks with new ones.

This is the idea of throughput: Every part of the production process should directly impact the delivery of an acceptable product out the door.1 That's a simplification of the entire throughput concept, but in basic terms any activity that doesn't contribute to the goal of making the company money needs to be discarded.

The bottom line for any company is that it should never forget that quality assurance activities are critical to its product's—and hence the company's—viability, now and in the future.


  1. Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox, The Goal, North River Press, 1992.

Darrick Dean is a quality engineer for Veka Inc. in Fombell, PA. He earned his bachelor's degree in engineering from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. Dean is a senior member of ASQ and an ASQ certified quality engineer, Six Sigma Green Belt, auditor and technician.

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