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THE QUALITY REVOLUTION

by Rene T. Domingo

Many firms which attempted company-wide Total Quality (TQ) are achieving limited success, mediocre results, or nothing at all. Excited by glowing accounts of the achievements of Japanese companies, they've tried almost all the tricks and techniques straight from the books: organize Quality Control Circles (QCC), apply statistical quality control (SQC), exhort everybody with slogans on quality, and hire any guru who can talk about quality. To their disappointment, most employees are not responding and several managers are resisting the efforts. Typical reaction starts with elation and confusion, and ends with frustration. After several months of unexplained sham and shambles, the movement is aborted and life is back to normal: the company's defect rate is back at its normally high levels.

What many books and gurus on quality don't mention, intentionally or otherwise, is that the hardest part in implementing TQ is the changing of prevailing work attitudes and sentiments and not the application of techniques, statistical or organizational. For instance, they overlook the following attitudinal problems that hinder any quality improvement program:

- employees are not personally convinced of the importance of quality in their work; as long as they get their paychecks on time, nobody wants to rock the boat.

- workers do not take management and its pronouncements seriously;

- management distrusts workers, and regards them as mere hired hands incapable of thinking and coming out with bright ideas;

- nobody, employees and management alike, realize the need to change or improve simply because there is no crisis perceived; business can go on indefinitely with the status quo.

In short, the atmosphere is not usually conducive for introducing those quality techniques. How does a company seriously committed to adopt the Total Quality Culture (the real TQC) - and not just "total quality control"- start changing attitudes and molding a new culture for everybody? How does it begin overcoming the inertia of mediocre performance, shoddy products, and sloppy service that have been going on for decades? Before forming those quality circles and posting those charts and slogans, some groundwork or agitation have to be done to create the proper atmosphere - so that all employees would get the message that the company means business, that the "more of the same" lifestyle is out of style, and that quality is a must, not a motto. The following suggestions are not necessarily complete nor in the right order, but they should give an idea on how to incite the quality "revolution".

Let customers confront your employees

If a customer is furious at the company for a defective product he purchased, let him unleash some of that fury directly at the employee(s) responsible for the sloppy job. By stunning the latter, the same mistake would seldom be repeated. Conversely, if your customer has high praises for a job well done, don't take all the credit; reserve some or all for the responsible employees. In short, create every opportunity for your employees to receive direct feedback from your customers regarding the quality of their work. Many workers have been so used to their boss' so-so management style for years, that they take any sudden exhortation about quality from him with suspicion. Employees take more seriously responses from customers who pay for and use the company's products.

Japan Airlines (JAL) shows us a good example on how customers and employees can be made to stick together to achieve quality excellence. After the tragic JAL 747 crash in 1985, in order to regain the confidence of the riding public, the management directed that each aircraft shall have a dedicated maintenance crew personally responsible for the safety of its passengers and assigned aircraft. The names of the crew members shall be permanently posted on a plaque inside the plane for all passengers to see upon boarding. Moreover, (and this is the clincher), after every major overhaul and repair of its aircraft, the maintenance crew shall take its first flight with the passengers regardless of destination -- truly one of the most effective quality assurance (QA) measures I've encountered.

Dismantle all rework and recycling operations

"Do it right the first time," so goes the saying, and quality will improve. Very true -- but unfortunately, there are rework, repair, recycling operations and operators proliferating in many companies that tempt workers to do it wrong the first time (and succeeding times) because they see people who are paid to undo their mistakes. Immediately remove these temptations and realize that it is better to pile up defects in front of the worker for everyone to see rather than stash them in the rework lines. In this way, the problem surfaces and the company is forced to attack its root and origin, rather than depend on stopgap measures. Companies with rework operations usually notice that they multiply and create a vicious cycle: rework lines encourage more defects, more rework, and more lines. The danger is that these lines are very deceiving and barely noticeable from afar: they look like regular lines using the same machines, the same people.

Rework is most common in the plastic industry where one executive boasted that his company always achieves zero defect and no wastes, in spite of the shop floor being cluttered with them. His confidently argues that no plastic raw material is really thrown away since his "defects" can be remelted and remolded indefinitely. He fails to consider the labor, overhead, and opportunity lost every time he recycles. Inside one large car manufacturer I visited in Canada, the tour guide was bragging that his company has been applying Total Quality and Just-in-Time principles. As expected, the plant was almost fully automated, with scores of robots mostly doing welding operations. Very impressive -- until we reached the end of the production line that snakes inside the factory. I finally saw people - a dozen workers busily welding. I inquired why their work have not been automated since the robots were doing the same thing. He explained that these last operations cannot be automated since the human workers were rewelding what the robots missed in the earlier stages. So instead of fixing the robots, the company decided to provide employment.

Deliberately reduce all inventories

Inventories are ideal places to hide defects, obsolete products, and bad planning decisions. Like rework lines, reduce or eliminate these hideouts to flush out the problems and wastage. Avoid the overproduction, oversupplying, and overbuying of anything. Reduce to a minimum all sorts of inventories and supplies: raw materials, in-process, finished goods, and yes, paper clips and computer paper too. It is human nature to squander or fumble with anything in abundance; it is also human nature to cherish and economize anything in scarcity. By reducing inventories, the production flow becomes smoother and clearer; defects are easily spotted and solved. Workers would tend to be more careful in handling and processing materials, since there would be much less replacements and substitutes on hand.

Start and do everything on time

Quality is about following standards. The best way to develop and exercise this habit of following standards among all employees and managers is to start enforcing the most universal, the most explicit, and the most frequently violated standard in the company: time. Start and finish meetings on time. Don't wait for latecomers regardless of rank, nor brief them on what they've missed. End meetings on time even without conclusions or reaching the last item in the agenda. In many Japanese companies, meeting rooms are maintained either too cold or too hot to make the occupants very uncomfortable if they stay too long dabbling with idle talk and pointless discussions. In one company I've seen, somebody has to turn on the lights every 30 minutes; each meeting room has tamper proof timers set to irritate everybody and regularly remind those inside the room the company time and electrical energy they've used (or wasted).

Start and finish schedules and programs on time. In a company's QC circle competition where I was invited as guest speaker, the program started late by 45 minutes because the presentors, the president, and even the judges arrived late. The irony and sham are commonplace: people preaching and professing quality, without practicing it. In my speech I told them that if I were a customer, I would not have waited for them and simply walk out, and there goes your account.

Make it an unbending policy to deliver your goods on time, no matter what it takes. McDonalds trains its counter personnel in its Hamburger University to serve an order of a hamburger, a milk shake, and french fries in 50 seconds or less. Domino, one of the biggest pizza chain in the U.S., promises to deliver its freshly-made pizza at your doorstep within 30 minutes or it will knock off $3 from the price. Institute penalties, if none exist, for non-compliance with schedules and let everybody realize that there is a price to pay for not following time standards in dealing with co-employees or customers.

Clean up the work environment

Cleanliness is not only next to godliness, it is also next to quality. In evaluating Japanese companies for the much-coveted Deming Prize for Quality, the stern and meticulous judges, prior to checking product and process quality, start by inspecting the toilets, canteen, locker rooms, and floors -- usually the untidiest places inside any company. The principle is simple and almost infallible: workers cannot concentrate in producing quality products inside a dirty environment. They also check the racks, desks, stockrooms and check if things are in order and in the right places. Again the same principle: if what you see in front of you is cluttered, your mind tends to be cluttered too, and cluttered minds cannot think about anything, much less about quality. In most Deming prize awardees, the shop floors are so clean you can literally sleep on them. Cleanliness and orderliness are cardinal virtues in a true quality culture. They should become habits of all employees and managers. Prepare the mind first, and begin discussing total quality with your employees only after you have created a clean and orderly work environment.

Export or sell to more quality-conscious markets

Companies in the export business tend to improve their product quality faster that those just catering to the local market. The reason is simple: as far as their customers are concerned - the importers usually thousands of miles away - quality is non-negotiable. Non-compliance or late deliveries are punished with stiff penalties, non-payment, or contract termination. But domestic buyers will usually accept shoddy products provided the prices are low. Having more sense of humor than the overseas importers, they are more accessible and more open to compromises and free lunches to soothe quality complaints. Moreover, the domestic markets and consumers in many Asian countries are less fussy about quality. Many domestic sellers, often spoilt by their own customers, just grow old but never grow up in terms of quality.

Japanese companies were able develop high-quality goods in a short period of time simply because they export a substantial amount, usually 50%, of their production. In most countries, the airline industry, actually an export business, is the most strict and meticulous about quality and reliability because it has to deal with international passengers, competitors, and standards. According to one Japanese executive, the ultimate quality challenge for any foreign garment exporter is to succeed in selling to the Japanese - which he describes as the only nationality that looks under the skirt before deciding to buy it. It is interesting to note that some local products are marked "export quality" or even "export overruns" just to suggest good quality to the customers. By venturing into the export business, a company is challenged to satisfy very discriminating markets and compete internationally. Under this "sink-or-swim though quality" situation, its management and employees will realize the urgent need to improve quality to a much higher level than before.

Conclusion

Achieving TQ usually means a revolution, a 180-degree change in corporate culture, and the throwing away of many ingrained thinking and working habits by workers and managers alike. It requires the precision, patience, and power to steer an oil tanker or aircraft carrier into the opposite direction. Attaining 99.9997% quality level demands a very strong leadership with a very strong corporate will, making hard decisions and supreme sacrifices. As such, TQ is not for everybody. Negative thinkers and companies with weak convictions and commitments need not try TQ, for failure is guaranteed.


 

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