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The Corning Journey to Performance Excellence: Innovation Spanning Three Centuries  

Sharing the Story: Materials for Instructors and Discussion Leaders 

There are several ways to incorporate "The Corning Journey to Performance Excellence: Innovation Spanning Three Centuries" case study bundle in a classroom setting, in staff learning and development, and for independent learning.

It may be particularly effective in the following environments:

  • Within the curriculum of an undergraduate or graduate management course to demonstrate quality implementation and its impacts within an extremely complex, global manufacturing, and innovation organization.
  • Within business management or quality management curricula to demonstrate the key building blocks legacy companies use to sustain competitive advantage.
  • As a real life demonstration of a large-scale quality transformation and how it was implemented and sustained for executive education. 
Need assistance with materials for your lesson plan?

Case Study Components

The Corning Journey to Performance Excellence:
Innovation Spanning Three Centuries

Read the written case study in two parts: 

Part I presents the situation analysis posing the challenges that Corning, a 1995 Baldrige Award recipient, faced in its sustainable performance excellence journey.

Part II details some of the implementation activities of the Corning performance excellence team, along with some of the outstanding results they experienced.

Corning Video KC Video Presentation from the Corning Team     

The voices of Corning’s performance excellence team share how the organization developed a value creation system across all disciplines within the corporation.

Video contents: 

  • Presentation by Don McNeeley of the Master of Engineering Management program, McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University. Professor McNeeley introduces the context of a legacy company such as Corning in pursuing great transformation and continued innovation by framing it against business survival rates and product life cycle theory (Heckscher-Ohlin and later R. Vernon). 
  • Introduction to the case featuring James Buckman, Buckman Associates, questioning Don McCabe, former senior vice president, manufacturing and performance excellence, Corning; Kristine Dale, director, performance excellence, Corning, Roger Ackerman, Jr., performance excellence facilitator, Corning.
  • Case presentation to students in the Master of Engineering Management program at Northwestern University:
    • Don McCabe provides an overview of the performance excellence system at Corning
    • Kristine Dale fleshes out the deployment aspects
    • Roger Ackerman, Jr., offers insight into using quality tools in a commercial application
    • The panelists conduct a question and answer session with students 

Corning Fire Reinventing Excellence  

In this feature article from the July 2013 issue of QP, learn how Corning used quality to maintain its legacy of innovation for 160 years. Based on interviews with Don McCabe, Kristine Dale, and Roger Ackerman, Jr., along with James Steiner, senior vice president and general manager, Specialty Materials, authors James and Mary Beth Buckman analyze the keys to Corning's long-lasting success.

Corning Home Again You Can Go Home Again

Read an earlier case study article on Corning published in the January 2007 issue of QP.  Learn how Jamie Houghton came out of retirement to execute a turnaround for Corning by focusing on quality, values, and Six Sigma's DMAIC process. 

Resources for Further Reading

See recommended resources to help continue your exploration of topics related to quality management, organizational culture, transformation, and more, many available online from ASQ.      

Learning Objectives

High-level objectives 

  • Demonstrate the efficacy of using quality-focused systems thinking to transform an organization.
  • Demonstrate that quality or performance excellence is a strategic imperative.
  • Understand the key inflection points that lead a company to transformation.
  • Understand the management of major change within an organization.
  • Use the theories and approaches highlighted to design a quality system that will work with an organization’s unique culture and structure. 

Case-study-specific objectives 

  • Demonstrate the integration of performance excellence (quality) with the strategy of innovation.
  • Understand the design and sustainability of a continuous improvement system.
  • Demonstrate the integration of the core principles of quality (performance excellence) into an operating system.
  • Explain how continuous improvement and data-driven approaches such as Six Sigma and lean can be customized to a company’s strategic objectives.
  • Introduce the Foundation of Greatness Model.  

Key lessons 

  • Quality initiatives are most successful and produce the greatest results when they are a strategic imperative tied to the organization mission and strategy.
  • Strong leadership at all levels of the organization is essential to make quality improvements. Strong leadership will not occur if it is not participative. 
  • Many companies will experience inflection points – points at which a deep re-thinking of strategy and its deployment into the organization occurs (see notes on inflection points).
  • Though cultural change is very difficult, it is imperative to facilitate a real quality transformation.
  • Data-driven analysis is critical to reduce errors, waste, and mistakes. 
  • Employee education in quality principles and practices is critical, but offering a tailored approach that fits the culture of the organization is key.
  • Knowledge and information systems geared to best practices and innovation are essential to make quality advancements.
  • Measurement of quality outcomes should be transparent and widely distributed to all stakeholders.
  • Data-driven tools need not inhibit innovation. Indeed, tools such as DMAIC can be adjusted to enhance innovation and assist sustainability and the product life cycle.
  • Refute the notion that Six Sigma tools are for operational purposes only; they can be equally applied to sales and marketing functions. 

Discussion Questions 

Provide students with the following questions as they explore the path Corning took in order to facilitate in-class discussion and critical thinking. 

  • What is your definition of “quality?”
  • Share an experience of a time when you received a service or product that was of “poor quality.”
  • How would Corning or other manufacturers define quality?
  • What tools do executives have available to cut costs while maintaining the customer’s value proposition?
  • What are some of the key aspects Corning would need to consider in renewal of their quality efforts?
  • Culture is one of the toughest areas a company may have to change or address. What cultural aspects of Corning would you try to maintain? 
  • Are there cultural aspects you would want changed to facilitate stellar results?  If so what would those be and how would you approach them?
  • Name some of Corning’s core values. How does the performance excellence system support these values?
  • Why is it important to align the organization’s culture with its larger goals?
  • What are the primary business challenges addressed by Corning’s Performance Excellence system?
  • How is the system deployed globally?
  • Describe the integration of performance excellence with the strategy of innovation.
  • Thinking of the guiding strategic choices, what things can Corning leaders do now that they previously may not have thought was possible?
  • What did Corning need to do in order to make its own “Belt” education available online?
  • How does the Corning, “completed project” file serve internal benchmarking?
  • Can you think of ways that organizations in different industries can use quality to make improvements? 

Foundations of Greatness 

During the early 1980s, Corning was an early U.S. adopter of what was then known as “total quality management,” joining other iconic companies such as Motorola, Ford, Xerox, Milliken, and AT&T. While the methods and concepts varied from one organization to another, a few repeating concepts emerged:

  • Attack on all fronts; everyone needs to be engaged in the effort; quality has to be a “total” effort.
  • Deploy small teams to fix processes in projects across the company.
  • Ensure that the tools of quality--such as Pareto analysis, fishbone diagrams, statistical control charts, brainstorming, process mapping, and flow charts--are taught to and used by many teams.
  • Among the iconic early adopters, the “attack on a broad front” strategy that is implicit in the phrase “total quality” requires total support by the CEO.   

As in any sustained performance excellence system, the approach at Corning built upon these repeating concepts, adjusting, manipulating, and customizing them to  culture, strategy, and methods of doing business. 

The figure below depicts some of those foundation blocks.

Foundations of Greatness for KC 

A key mission of the Next Generation Quality Leadership series is to continue to explore the Foundations of Greatness. Learn more in the "Next Generation Quality Leadership Webcast," in which Jim Buckman discusses how the body of knowledge on quality is changing as a new generation of quality leaders emerge. 

Also see the first case study in the series, "Journey to Perfect: Mayo Clinic and the Path to Quality."  

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