#3 Teaching Quality (1998)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day

I attended a “quality” seminar the other day, similar to all of the quality seminars I’ve attended  in the last two decades.  The only interesting difference in this particular program was that it was taught by an ex-FDA Deputy Director.  Like all of the preceding training experiences, this class was directed at the wrong end of the company, the people on the firing line.  The trainees were all secretaries, customer service people, technical service people, assemblers, engineers, and middle managers.  Not a single executive put in more than a few cursory moments in this eight hour class.  No change there.  I’ve only seen executives put up with hearing about quality management when the training site is a vacation resort and all meals are provided by the corporation.  The Good Old Boys who are the root and source of every company’s quality problems just don’t want to be involved, unless there’s something in it for them.  I guess we’re not paying them enough, you think?

Teaching quality to the troops is redundant and ineffective.  The people who build and support the products know what it takes to make a good product.  They know where the resources are wasted, but have absolutely no authority to fix anything.  Lecturing factory and office workers on shifting quality investments proves that the hope for change and improvement is doomed from the beginning.  Any real quality program has to be driven top down.  Real quality programs are few and far between. 
Like I said at the start, the class I just attended was such a doomed program.  Wasted effort and misdirected focus.  Unlike the best classes I’ve suffered, this instructor had a bias that almost cancelled any hope he might have of even understanding the problem he described.  He told us that although we might think the Japanese had invented “quality,” we would be wrong.  According to him, the Japanese have “never invented anything, they just steal it from us.”  He’s wrong, but he’s not alone.  Lots of ignorant executives make similar claims.  Some even more idiotic engineers say the same things.  It’s a cultural problem.

In manufacturing, execution is everything.  Nothing else matters.  Any college can supply dozens of “creative nerds” who will be innovative and original.  I mean any college; Japanese, German, Taiwanese, French, and American.  The history of software design has shown, I believe, that if you seat enough monkeys at enough typewriters, eventually, they’ll write Macbeth or Microsoft Word or Lotus 1,2,3.  When dozens of people are involved in a difficult and large project, process coordination is more of a happy accident rather than the result of a carefully executed plan. 
Coordination and execution are critical items in manufacturing that we too often discount as unimportant, third-world characteristics.  While we over-reward ourselves for “creativity,” we discount the importance of actually doing the work.  Running a manufacturing company isn’t about some mythical “big picture,” it’s about getting work done everyday.  The work requires people who can and will focus on details and will do it with skill and consistency. 

The early history of the Japanese automotive and electronics invasion has shown that mediocre designs, produced with consistent and acceptable quality, will be in as much demand as state-of-the-art products produced with inconsistent or unreliable quality.  None of the products Sony or Toyota shipped to the U.S. in the 1960’s surprised any knowledgeable engineer with innovation or styling.  The surprise was that a consumer could buy one of those companies’ products and expect it to work right off of the boat.  The surprise was actually no surprise!  We learned to expect that everything we bought from Japanese companies would be consistent.  We could stop looking for the defects we’d learned to expect from “Monday/Friday” production.  We could quit doing a final inspection, before we carried our purchases out of the the store.  Since the Far East has taken over production of almost every complex product manufactured—even those with American company names—we no longer worry about what is going to happen the first time we plug in our appliances, TV’s, stereo systems, and computers.  That’s no small feat.

  The difference between a quality product and a piece of junk is in the execution of the design and manufacturer, from front to back.  Somehow, in the U.S. we’ve decided that the front end of the process is nearly infinitely more valuable than the back.  We think the concept is more valuable than the reality.  The reason Japan is seen as the quality supplier of every product they export is because they have not made that mistake.  The best Japanese companies realize that building the product is as important as creating it.  They apply their resources accordingly. 

In the U.S., Manufacturing receives the pressure and Design gets the perks.  Every talented engineer wants to be a designer, a “creative” engineer.  Only the dregs, the less talented, less innovative engineers are regulated to manufacturing.  In fiction (as in Haley’s book Wheels) and fact, the designers are royalty and the builders are grunts.  “Suits” are valuable, blue collars are expendable.  With that standard set and accepted, we’ve given up more than half of the formula to manufacturing success. 

January 1998

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