12/1/1999 | 3 MINUTE READ

Quality Is Job...?

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On November 2, I woke up to the following news:

Ford was recalling 10,000 1999 Cougars because of a door problem, and 3,800 Mercury Villager minivans because of a problem with fuel tank retention straps. The 1999 Nissan Quest is built on the same line and same platform as the Villager; 1,600 of those units were being recalled by Nissan for the same issue. Ford's Volvo division announced a recall of more than 122,600 1998 models for a glitch with passenger side airbags and an additional 114,850 1998 and 1997 cars for a faulty headlight switch.

DaimlerChrysler was recalling 227,283 1991-94 Shadows and Sundances because there is a risk that the driver's seat could suddenly break.

Meanwhile, over at General Motors, 6,584 1999 Chevy Cavaliers and Pontiac Sunfires were getting the hook because of the possibility of an IP light malfunction, and 3,947 model year 2000 Chevy Blazers, GMC Jimmys, Chevy S-10s, and GMC Sonomas were service bay bound because of the possibility of some brake fluid leakage.

Owners of 1999 Land Rover Discovery sport utes—more than 11,000 of them—were having to wheel their Discos back to the shop because of a problem with an ABS alarm.

And because many of us fly on a fairly regular basis, consider this announcement made on November 1 by Jeff Hawk, director of Airplane Certification at Boeing Commercial Airplanes Group:

"We discovered recently that we have non-conforming flight deck drip shield parts on some of our 747s, 757s, 767s and 777s...These drip shields are used to manage condensation in the airplanes. We have already taken action to correct the situation in production...We are identifying the in-service airplanes affected and we are working with the FAA to develop a plan to address them."

Straps. Switches. Drip shields. None of these things are huge in and of themselves, but their consequences on the system can be, well, problematic.

What is particularly disturbing is that I don't think I've talked to a single supplier during the past several years that hasn't emphatically stated with regard to OEM contracts, "Quality is the price of entry" or, even more fundamentally, "Quality is a given." If that is, indeed, true, then how can this be reconciled with the hundreds of thousands of vehicles with problems?

It can't. Or can it?

Isn't it conceivable that because quality is considered "a given" that people take it for granted: they don't pay as much attention to it as they should, as much as they would if it wasn't a given—the Hawthorne Effect in reverse? After all, it may be a part of the fabric of the company. There are sensors and measuring machines. Policies and procedures. Plenty of trained people. Plenty of people collecting data. Companies organized so that "everyone is responsible for quality." Everyone...or no one?

Remember Ford's slogan "Quality Is Job One"? It was dropped because it was assumed that people—external and internal—got it. People knew that quality was part of what Ford (like many other companies) is all about. But the numbers cited above indicate that perhaps people have...forgotten.

But it could be something else at work here. Could it be that quality is important, a given, the price of entry—but that the focus on cost trumps quality, that people are more concerned with dollars than they are with making sense (i.e., recalls are certainly nonsense for all involved)?

Yes, yes, I know that quality provides a tremendous payback, but let's face it, some pressures are stronger than others and rhetoric often gives way to reality.

One of the things that's sometimes said is that no one goes to work in the morning wanting to do a bad job. Dr. Deming pointed out that it is the system that really determines whether a person will be able to produce good product, and that management is responsible for the system. But how many people do you know who go to work each day and just do enough to get by, people for whom the notion of excelling is completely foreign? I'm not suggesting that there are people who want to do a bad job, but that doing top-notch work is not a high priority on their things to do: If x is acceptable, then why both with x + y?

One factor contributing to quality problems is becoming something of a fact of life of business today: the uncertainty associated with mergers and buyouts. Who is going to bust their hump when they suspect that they may be thrown out on their rear after their employer is absorbed by another?

There are no easy answers to any of this. If there were, then there wouldn't be the problems. But at an individual level we should all understand that getting by isn't getting ahead, and that quality still counts, even if those doing the numbers may have forgotten.