Dear Gemba Coach,
I’m in the quality department of a large company and I’ve heard you say quality is the worst enemy of quality. I find this offensive, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. How would you back up such an outrageous statement?
Oops! That does sound like the kind of things I would say, so first of all let me apologize if I’ve given offense. I do get carried away as I try to make difficult points and I’m in no way suggesting that people in quality departments do their work wrong or are disengaged – not at all. I don’t know in what specific context you heard me say this, but usually what I have in mind is a more fundamental point. Please bear with me as I try to explain, and, please, again, accept my apologies if this has hurt feelings in your department. Let me backtrack some.
Yesterday, as I came back from a plant with the COO and the lean officer of an industrial group we sat down in a café to have a beer before waiting for our respective trains. As we’re about to order, the waiter asks us to move to a table further inside the restaurant, because he had to set the tables close to the window for dinner. The waiter was denying us our preference for a table by the window for the sake of this own process. This example might seem mundane, but, to me, it has profound implications:
- First, by adhering to the process in order to support efficiency and quality this bar has lost three customers – we won’t go back.
- Second, the waiter wasn’t responsible in any way – he was told to work this way, and embarrassed about it. By imposing such as silly process on him, his manager was taking away the deeper meaning of waiting on people: being a welcoming host. The waiter was reduced to a pair or arms doing the job, suffered friction with customers and lost a tip (okay, after we discussed it, we tipped him anyhow, but grrr!)
- Thirdly, as long as the process doesn’t acknowledge the variety of customer preferences, there is no hope for kaizen.
The jury is in, the verdict is read: quality is the key to profitability. In an influential article, HBR authors Raynor and Ahmed conclude from their statistical study of thousands of companies that there are three rules for making a company truly great:
- Better before cheaper
- Revenue before cost
- There are no other rules
In a similar vein, the in-depth study of the PIMS database for over 30 years from Robert Buzzell concludes that the one thing to emerge from the data is that:
- Market share drives profitability
- Perceived quality drives market share
Where’s the Beef?
All well and good. What’s my beef with the quality department then? The problem is in “better” and “perceived quality.” For many years, we’ve obsessed (rightly) that quality lay in consistency. Nothing wrong with that; one of Deming’s core lessons. But, if we’re not careful, consistency can easily split into “single process mentality.” As team members explained to me on the shop floor just last week, if you want us to be consistent, let us build just one product. To be fair, as we all looked at what they had to go through to shift from assembling product A to product B, we got their point.
The simplest way to deliver consistency is to educate the customer to fit within our (consistent) processes. Unfortunately, in this day and age, this is also the surest way to enrage the customer.
As 2.0 is spreading through all aspects of our lives, immense choice and personalization are now the rule. Customers like things just the way they like them. And, sure, they’re inconsistent – aren’t we all? I can guiltlessly blame a favorite shirt brand for changing a minor thing on the shirts I usually buy as well as berate them for not carrying the exact new model I suddenly fancy.
Our organizations, from the design department to the quality department are set up to deliver on specifications. engineering builds to specification, quality makes sure they’re enforced. Engineering tries for specifications that will satisfy the largest user base, but that’s precisely the problem. Specifications are only the entry ticket – not the sale. Sure, all cars need to respond to safety, performance, and style specs – but is that why you pick a Toyota over a Nissan? A BMW over a Merc? A Chevy over a Kia? This is not about functionality but taste: preferences.
Responding to customer preferences without losing product or service consistency is a major headache. Most organizations simply don’t attempt to solve it. They just do what they do, and, as a customer, you deal with it or not.
Indeed, most bureaucracies treat their customers as alibis. Teachers treat kids as an opportunity to teach (have you noticed that when you try to talk to the teacher about your kid, the teacher explains about the class?), hospitals treat patients as opportunities to nurse (have you noticed that when you try to talk about your grandmother, they explain about the ward?), and so on. Quality departments treat people and products as the opportunity to maintain and defend processes.
Let Me Explain
I never meant that quality departments are the enemy of quality in their terms – of course most quality departments fight for the rigorous adherence to process. But that’s exactly the point. As they drown engineering and production in processes, they burden the company with an added layer of costs (how much does it cost to obtain a quality qualification?) to the detriment of flexibility and following customer preferences. Yes, I understand that variability makes it harder to maintain consistency – no one is arguing against that. But that is precisely the job. How do we maintain consistency and flexibility?
This can’t happen through a quality specialist department. It has to come from the value-adding team members themselves. The waiter needs the flexibility to let three tired, bossy middle-age men have a beer just where they want it as they want it, as well as setting up tables for dinner. Such flexibility can’t be obtained without deep team member engagement, just as one-product-batch on the line can’t be obtained without working steadily with the team members themselves to make the product change easier in a way that they own the flexibility and are proud of it.
I’m sorry if I’ve expressed it tactlessly, but the point remains. Is the mission of the quality department to support value-adding team members in catering to customer preferences as well as product consistency (which, yes, it’s hard) or is it the mission of the quality department to make sure the existing processes are respected, regardless of what happens at the sales point? Is quality defending customer preferences? Or is quality using customers and operators as an alibi to do quality? These, I find, are deep fundamental questions about the nature of the firm and how well it performs on its markets.
If you are certain that your particular department is fighting for customer preferences every day (did you defend a customer preference today?) and for the engagement of team-members in greater flexibility (have you contributed to energizing team members on flexibility today?) then I’ll admit that my remarks are out of place. Gladly. But, if on the contrary, you have found yourself telling value-adding employees that their work is to conform to the quality system then I stand by my words – no language is strong enough to wake up companies to the true meaning of perceived quality. Better means better for customers, not better for quality departments.