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The Corning Journey to Performance Excellence: Innovation Spanning Three Centuries, Part II


Part I of this case study presents the situation analysis, posing the challenges that Corning faced in its sustainable performance excellence journey.

Part II continues below by discussing the implementation activities and results of the Corning performance excellence team.  

Quality Renewal

Quality implementation was a 25-year progression at Corning. As within many companies, “quality” initially meant focusing on product quality. But as a strategic imperative, it became a process to position the company as a leader in innovation, manufacturing, and commercialization of products, and a driver to greater profitability. This continual improvement approach was achieved by setting bold goals and expectations, using cross-functional teams to leverage outcomes, and expanding the term “quality” to “performance excellence,” indicating the comprehensive inclusion of all business practices.

Once the essential strategy was determined, it became evident there were resources already in place, and McCabe, as the company's new quality leader, would have to build on that expertise across the organization to provide a collection of performance excellence tools. With a modest-sized staff, McCabe oversaw the customization and expansion of the company’s Six Sigma training programs. New offerings would cover more subject matter and would be available for more personnel at all levels of the organization.

Eventually, materials were uploaded to the company Intranet website and translated into eight languages for use across the globe.

The Corning performance excellence model, shown in Figure 1, supported the customization of quality tools and employee training within the new strategy.  Deploying the model demanded a great deal of effort and resources, but it was imperative in maintaining the company’s innovation culture.

Corning Figure 1 Performance Excellence  

Implementing Performance Excellence 

The strategic imperatives of cost advantage and innovation were at the forefront of the next phase of the Corning journey. This phase would emphasize values, execution, and improvement to meet corporate financial objectives. 

Globally, 70 percent of Corning’s resources—both in manpower and expenditures—are devoted to manufacturing. One of the first tasks facing McCabe, whose title was senior vice president of manufacturing and performance excellence, was to transform manufacturing operations using the following methods: 

  • Define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC), a rigorous, data-driven method for improving and stabilizing business practices. Corning customized DMAIC tools for both operational and deep process improvement knowledge. When a Corning team works through the steps, tollgates at the end of each phase track progress. The company also maintains a database of completed projects that every employee can access. 
  • Individual DMAIC (iDMAIC), an online offering allowing one person to learn and apply Six Sigma methods to a personal project, as opposed to the more common practice of three- to 10-person project teams. Enabling one-person projects not only provides for far more learning, it also avoids the temptation of project and meeting proliferation and promotes Six Sigma certification.
  • DESGN, an advanced Design for Six Sigma tool to create new and innovative business processes. Corning customized Design for Six Sigma and applies this method when a new process is needed or when a process is so broken that it needs to be replaced.
  • Lean, a process of eliminating waste without affecting customer value. Corning used lean to reduce waste and improve business process flow.
  • Innovation, a process to support new product and technology development. As Figure 2 shows, Corning’s innovation process included five stages, from building initial knowledge to life cycle management.
  • Commercialization applications, the implementation of Six Sigma and other continuous improvement tools to the skills of sales and marketing. Many organizations struggle when it comes to applying Six Sigma outside of the manufacturing and research and development settings that it was designed to address. Corning has found, cataloged, documented, and published best practices for more than 50 common processes related to sales calls, proposals, market analyses, and forecasts. These tools help marketing performance by allowing employees to participate in improvement without being compelled to use ill-fitting tools.   

Corning’s initial concentration on streamlining manufacturing processes using lean, Six Sigma, DMAIC, and DESGN produced dramatic results: high quality products and low-cost production. 

Fig 2 Corning Innovation Process KC

Reaching Beyond Manufacturing 

McCabe's next challenge was to drive performance excellence across all disciplines to achieve corporate goals. With the full commitment of senior management, he organized a small team that acted as a catalyst of information and made best practice techniques widely available.
In keeping with the strategic nature of the initiative, the team’s primary focus was to embed performance excellence practices across the broad spectrum of the multi-division, global company. The team provided training, conducted benchmarking, launched Six Sigma projects, and supported teams dedicated to process improvement.
A three-pronged approach that championed innovation, manufacturing excellence, and communication was used. This flexible approach then took into account the underlying culture of Corning, as well as the corporate vision and values, while the growth elements of innovation, investment, and business variability could still be achieved.
One key component would be to build flexibility into the system. The team knew they would use the Six Sigma DMAIC approach and customize additional Six Sigma tools to arrive at a process management system that fit the company’s culture and values.
Performance excellence advocates at Corning also knew that not all problems needed the same tools. The organization created a software package with templates, fact-driven examples, and easy process steps to accomplish what an individual may need to achieve performance excellence. Instead of impeding innovation and creativity, the company found standardization enhanced it.
As of 2011, 3,000 employees had been trained in Six Sigma, and performance excellence champions were embedded in each division and manufacturing facility globally. Nearly 1,000 formal improvement projects were completed in 2011. Every year, Corning employees complete 100,000 personal improvement projects. On average, each employee uses performance excellence tools four times annually. 
One of the most telling examples demonstrating the integration of performance excellence into the culture at Corning involves an hourly maintenance worker. She used the iDMAIC online application to rearrange cleaning carts for greater efficiency and effectiveness, saving time in her tasks, and fostering pride in her work.  

Another 160 Years

Is it possible to take a successful 160 years of innovation accomplishments and improve on them? 
In the past five years, Corning has generated more profit than it did in the preceding 155 years combined. It is evident Corning’s ultimate goal is to be around for another 160 years. Chasing short-term profitability at the risk of long-term success is simply not how Corning operates.
Corning’s renewed commitment to quality and the addition of rigor to its hallmark innovation process allows the company to better manage the life cycles of its inventions and improve profitability and sustainability. The performance excellence program provides a competitive advantage so that Corning is a low-cost producer across its product lines on a global basis. Over an eight-year period, performance excellence saved Corning $1.5 billion.
When Houghton took helm of a fine old company in 1983, he used total quality to create great advantages for Corning. In the last decade, the Corning performance excellence effort has reshaped the company and redefined quality as value creation. The value creation machine has served Corning investors, employees, and stakeholders well. 


  1. Interview with James (Jamie) R. Houghton, former CEO,  by James Buckman in 1999.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Corning Incorporated, "Balance: Corning Annual Report 2002," 2003.
  4. J. Houghton to Don McCabe, as described by McCabe in an interview with the authors.
Editor's note: 
This article was based on interviews conducted with James Houghton in 2002 and with the following Corning executives in 2011: Don McCabe, former senior vice president, manufacturing and performance excellence; James Steiner, senior vice president and general manager, specialty materials; Kristine Dale, director, performance excellence; and Roger Ackerman Jr., performance excellence facilitator.

All photos courtesy of Corning.

About the Authors

James Buckman

Jim has been consulting, writing, and working on leadership issues related to quality since the mid 1970s. He was named the founding president of the Minnesota Council for Quality, where he served from 1989 to 1993. He then accepted a position at the University of Minnesota, where he established the Joseph Juran Center for Leadership in Quality and learned from some of the greatest quality thinkers in U.S. history, including Joseph M. Juran; A. Blanton Godfrey; Bob Galvin, Motorola; Paul O’Neill, Alcoa; Don Petersen, Bill Ford, and Alan Mulally, Ford Motor Co.; Jamie Houghton, Corning Inc.; and Roger Milliken, Milliken Co. Since retiring in 2009, he has worked to advance the ideas that underpin quality leadership into U.S. institutions for higher education, healthcare, and infrastructure systems, especially electricity.

Mary Beth Buckman, MBA

After ending a 28-year corporate career in marketing, new business development, and strategic management with three Fortune 500 companies, Mary Beth taught business management courses at the college level. Currently, she works with her husband, Jim, in documenting corporate quality transformations from the last decade.

Return to the Corning homepage to to view a video presentation of this case study and find resources you can use to lead classroom or group discussions.

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