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What’s the Right Quality Path?

​You may not know who Roger Milliken was but I formed an indelible impression of him in quality classes I conducted in the 80’s. I had repeatedly watched him on a video I was using which covered the second Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award ceremony.

In addition to receiving that 1989 award directly from President Ronald Reagan, Milliken was interviewed at length on the video concerning his views on the Total Quality Management approach that Milliken & Co. embraced so successfully.

His company had performed very well in competing with the Japanese in spite of their lower wages and newer technology. If you’re interested in knowing what a true American businessman is like, take the time to Google this guy. He was really something.

In just a few short years after Milliken won that award, TQM was almost suddenly considered passé

​Before the popularity of TQM, two other quality initiatives, Quality Circles and Zero Defects had been the hot items. Bookshelves were full of books on all these initiatives during their heydays and consultants made fortunes because of them. Still, all of these movements seemed to collapse in unison as focus turned to the new ISO 9000 standards and the use of SPC (Statistical Process Control) as “better” alternatives. Employees soon began a new and still continuing trend of referring to whatever their company was doing about quality as the “Flavor of the Month” and there were lots of flavors.

Of course there was no clear ending or starting point to any of these movements and there were others movements as well. In a conversation on all of this with a VP of Manufacturing of a Fortune 500 company, he expressed to me his opinion that “People just get tired of the same old stuff after a while and things need to be relabeled”. That sounded reasonable but I felt a bit skeptical. One wonders if the Quality Circles were just inadequate or whether commitment to them had been inadequate as some evidence suggested.

If you consider again the Malcolm Baldridge award, which I referred to before, you can see a similar trend. It’s our annual national quality award and at first it was a big deal. As I recall it, the President of the United States presented it for the first two years. Then the ceremony was passed down to the Vice President after which it was shortly passed down to the Secretary of Commerce. News of it simultaneously went from a page one bit piece to hardly worthy of print. Sadly, I guess we couldn’t figure out how to reliable it. Much more sadly, the Baldridge has never got the media coverage it clearly deserves.

Take ISO 9000 for another instance. It was hot in 1987 when the original standards were adapted. There really were interested executive officers in many major companies when those standards hit the pages of many business periodicals.

But interest had already waned however by the time the categories of those standards were reorganized from twenty down to essentially five with ISO 9000:2000, a change that many view as fundamentally unintelligent. What is worse however is that management interest in actually using the standards to improve, which was never great in the first place, became almost extinct.

Today I hear mostly scathing indictments that ISO is a scam, that registrars are just extortionists and that most companies that are registered shouldn’t be. What caused the loss of enthusiasm and reversal of favor in that case?

Today the hot initiatives are Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma. Already those two initiatives are seen by many as “Lean Six Sigma”, the title of a book by the same name written by Michael George. The bookstores are full of books on these quality approaches just as they were full of books on Quality Circles, Zero Defects, TQM, ISO 9000 and SPC back years ago. You should be thinking by now, what’s the point? There is a point and here it is.

Jack Welch, former General Electric CEO, was directly involved in the GE Six Sigma effort. That is the reason it succeeded. Roger Milliken was directly involved in his TQM efforts. That is the reason he succeeded.

Simply put, whatever you decide to do about quality, if upper management isn’t directly involved and won’t stay committed, be prepared to watch your efforts fail. If upper management is not directly involved, and in the cases of the vast majority of all the past initiatives just mentioned, they were not, any path you choose will fail.

On the other hand, if upper management is directly involved in any initiative it will be successful. It’s not about which path you choose, it’s about what upper management does, not what they direct others to do. These things simply cannot be delegated and that, in my humble opinion, is all there is to it.

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