By Tom Taormina
Editor’s note: This the first of three articles in a series defining a new approach to quality management for conformity-assessment professionals. Parts two and three will be appearing in the coming weeks.
The word “quality” is a staple in the lexicon of our profession. Unfortunately, its true definition is continually obfuscated by those who use it. What is a quality meal, car, garment, day, product, or service? Does the use of the word in these contexts suggest that the event is better than average or exceptional? Is there a definable degree of quality? Does it range from unacceptable to poor, adequate, and superior? What is an acceptable quality level? What is quality of life? Where do we find defined standards to compare results with expectations, or is quality merely a state of mind defined by the user of the term?
In the world of business, we have been attempting to define acceptable and unacceptable performance levels since the beginning of the industrial revolution. As we moved from individual craftsmanship to the world of factories, unsophisticated quality control manifested itself by culling acceptable from unacceptable products. This technique was extremely wasteful and often punitive. As industries searched for better ways to control and improve product, pioneers like Frederick W. Taylor came on the scene with the goal of increasing productivity without increasing the number of skilled craftsmen.
The early 20th century brought the inclusion of “processes.” Walter Shewhart began to focus on controlling processes in the mid-1920s, which made improvement relevant not only for the finished product but for the processes that created it. W. Edwards Deming became a proponent of Shewhart’s SQC methods and later became a leader of the quality movement in both Japan and the United States. Joseph Juran further evolved QC and QA into the model for our current techniques of industrial management. Armand Feigenbaum contributed the concept of TQM in another attempt to define quality.
But what was the goal of these “fathers” of quality? They certainly did not have a cogent and accepted definition of the term. They were each focused on reducing defect levels to a consensual quantity of outgoing defects. They worked to minimize process variability, contain the cost of quality, and statistically predict quality outcomes. With the notable exception of Philip B. Crosby, they avoided tackling the elephant in the room—achieving zero outgoing defects. In recent decades, the concept of no critical defect ever reaching a customer has been further obscured by ISO 9001 and the culture of Six Sigma. Since 1987, ISO 9001 and its harmonized standards have been the tools of choice for quality and other management systems. The premise of these standards is that if organizations remains in compliance with their requirements, they will achieve an acceptable level of performance. Unfortunately, this is based on conformance, not performance, and it does not offer a globally recognized definition of acceptable quality.
Six Sigma was a statistical tool developed by Motorola to eliminate final test on their cell phone production line. For them, 3.4 defects per million opportunities was an acceptable business risk. Jack Welch turned it into a phenomenon when he implemented the methodology across the General Electric companies. It then became “the tool to improve business processes by greatly reducing the probability that an error or defect will occur.” Industry seized on Six Sigma as the new global standard of quality management, however, it did not translate effectively across all industries. There is no “one size fits all” across businesses. The “Belt” program also became a very costly method of qualifying Six Sigma experts. The consultants and trainers benefited the most while the organizations that paid for the program seldom saw their desired return on investment. It once again assumed that there would always be process variability and an acceptable number of defects. Perhaps as a consequence, both ISO 9001 registrations and Six Sigma programs have seen a precipitous decline in the last decade as business leaders have been unable to prove quantifiable positive effects on their bottom line.
In part two of this series, we will more clearly define quality.
About the author
Tom Taormina, CMC, CMQ/OE, was one of the first quality control engineers at NASA’s Mission Control Center. He supported all 17 Apollo Moon Missions. He went on to run three manufacturing companies successfully replacing QC with self-inspection. Over the last 50 years, he has worked with more than 700 companies as a consultant, auditor, and trainer. He has trained scores of QMS auditors and conducted hundreds of audits. For 20 years, he has provided expert witness testimony in more than forty lawsuits. Taormina is the former Chair of ASQ QMD Quality Management Systems Committee. He has published 12 books on quality management.