The Quest for QUALITY

October 28, 1991|By Kim Clark

"Quality is job one." "The quality comes through." "The quality goes in before the name goes on."

In the decade since Japanese firms started flooding American stores with inexpensive, defect-free televisions, copiers and automobiles, American business people have been attempting to win back customers by preaching "quality."

They've bunched workers into "quality circles." They've hired vice presidents for quality. And they've become disciples of W. Edwards Deming, the man who taught Japanese managers how to produce top-notch goods quickly through "Total Quality."

As a result, many companies can now document dramatic reductions in defects and improvements in service.

But there is still disturbing evidence that American companies are having trouble closing the quality gap.

Some domestic firms' quality claims have turned out to be exaggerated. Often, companies that dedicate themselves to quality in good faith find that the programs peter out after a few months. And perhaps most troubling, many companies that have made continuous progress are still struggling financially.

Managers and quality gurus are discovering that quality is much harder to define and achieve than they had ever imagined.

Meeting customer expectations, one of the key components of quality, is difficult when customers and expectations keep changing. And even when managers finally figure out what they must do to improve quality, they often are stymied by their own ignorance, by corporate inflexibility and by skepticism.

Improving quality, it turns out, is as tough as kicking the smoking habit. Many of those who try fail. And those who succeed must go through a wrenching change of behavior.


After more than 14 years of testing everything from aerators to zip-lock bags, David Heim, managing editor of Consumer Reports, still can't come up with a general definition of quality.

"Is it a food that is cheap or one that is convenient? One with no fat or one that tastes good?" he asks.

And he has no clear evidence that quality -- whatever it might be -- has improved.

"If quality is durability, longevity and good value, you could be pretty optimistic if you look at things people spend lot of money on," such as cars and electronic goods, he says.

"But beyond those two areas," which happen to face intense competition from Japanese manufacturers, "it is hard to generalize," Mr. Heim says. "Some products do fairly well on our tests and then readers tell us they aren't reliable."

PD Managers confronted with the task of improving quality often get

mired in the earliest stages -- defining quality and figuring out what they ought to do.

In 1983, Dick Hoyt was part of a group of Bethlehem Steel Corp. managers assigned to meet withering foreign competition by beefing up the quality of steel coming out of the troubled Sparrows Point yard.

After months of studying the different approaches of quality gurus ranging from Mr. Deming to Phil Crosby, the committee's efforts petered out.

"We didn't have a very good understanding [of] total quality and what it really required," Mr. Hoyt says.

"There are probably 14 definitions of quality," explains Karl Thor, vice chairman of the American Productivity and Quality Council.

"But any definition that doesn't contain the word customer is not a valid one," he says. "Quality is satisfying a customer with your products or services. Satisfy. That's a kind of neutral word. . . . Quality is delighting your customer."

The first step to quality is surveying customers to find out what they want, and how you meet their needs, he says.

But that is harder than it sounds, because customers are demanding more services and better service all the time, he adds.

Once managers figure out what they've got to do, they must prepare their company for a total change in corporate culture.

Aris Melisseratos, who was head of manufacturing at Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s Linthicum plant until this summer, said he learned how dramatic the change must be in the 1970s when he visited Mr. Deming at his Washington home to ask for help in improving quality at Westinghouse's local operations.

Mr. Deming kicked Mr. Melisseratos and his Westinghouse compatriots out of his house.

The reason: Westinghouse's top executives hadn't joined Mr. Melisseratos. Mr. Deming believes that the worker doing a job knows best how to improve it. Thus, he believes, quality can be improved only by taking power away from managers and placing it in the hands of the workers. And unless a company's top executives agree to relinquish power to workers, quality won't improve.

"The hardest thing to do is to create a new culture," Mr. Melisseratos says now.

"Management has to give up its power and empower employees," explained Mr. Melisseratos, who heads Westinghouse's Productivity and Quality Center in Pittsburgh.

Middle managers resist

Senior executives aren't the only ones to fight proposals to improve quality, some business people have discovered.

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