Updated: Sep 26, 2020
You’ve been duped. It’s ok, so was I. For years, I believed Quality was only about a company doing things just good enough to pass audits. A single department of stuffy, boring people hell bent on following the rules and maintaining the status quo. A group of “checkers” with clipboards at the heels of the “doers” making sure they marked the right boxes on a form or filed the paperwork in the right folder. I pictured them in crisp lab coats or neatly pressed suits. I’m not sure why, but they always had glasses (ridiculous, I know.)
One of my first exposures to “quality” was as an intern at a company in the civil engineering field. They were preparing for an ISO certification and I distinctly remember mountains of paperwork being diligently filed and cataloged. Rules were being followed, check boxes on forms were being verified, and paperwork was being put in the right folder.
It was a microcosm that either created or further reinforced my view of quality, I’m not sure which. I remember talking to people about what they were doing and getting the impression their effort was being wasted and the process was extremely expensive. It felt like a scolding parent telling a child what to do rather than the child wanting to do something because it was the good and right thing to do. This was all from a 10 minute conversation.
Fast forward a few years, I worked as an engineer at a company that designed and built equipment. We made product improvements in a computer program, had parts built, tested them as needed, and had them installed on the assembly line. Within our group, a senior engineer would check our design, verify the bill of materials were correctly put in a computer program from the 1970s (why do these programs still exist!?), and give them back with corrections. After reviewing the red pen riddled paperwork, I would make the requested updates and bring my fresh paperwork to yet another department for review. They would review my paperwork for a second time, mark it up in a red pen, return it to me for correction, and this song and dance would continue until I finally got it right. Not much right the first time going on here. I wasn’t “in the quality department,” but there were a whole lot of rules being followed, check boxes on forms being verified, and paperwork being put in the right folder.
Once I finally got everything right in the system, we’d eventually do a prototype build on the assembly line. This was done to verify our design in reality. Occasionally you’d find there were elements of the product in real life that didn’t show up in the computer world. You may find the design was too difficult to install, would be a nightmare to service in the field, or just didn’t work as intended.
Rarely, a part wouldn’t fit as expected and I remember being told “Take it to the quality group and get them to check it against the print.” This was my only interaction with the quality department - “Here, check this part we think someone screwed up - us or them - and find out which one it is.” In all my years with the company, the only time I ever talked to anyone in the quality department was when something went wrong.
Even in all my schooling, quality was never something we talked about. We learned thermodynamics, marketing strategy, differential equations, and how to interpret a P&L statement, but never what quality is, the impact it can have, and how to harness its power to transform a business. We never discussed its ability to guide transformative projects, develop innovative new products, engage the entire team in winning, solve difficult problems, or help a company reach its full potential. It’s not that the narrative was wrong or too narrow - it was nonexistent.
So if quality isn’t about rule following, check boxes on forms being verified, and paperwork being put in the right folder, what is it?
Striving for excellence in all you do
In its simplest form, quality is about excellence. It’s about not being satisfied with where you’re at today, but a vision for the future that’s “better.” Better product quality is an outcome (less variation, better features, a more consistent customer experience), not the goal. The goal is relentlessly pushing the envelope and challenging all aspects of what we do to improve.This can only happen if quality and its concepts are woven into everything we do. Rather than the department down the hall worrying about the quality of what we do (widget, service, concepts, etc.), we all need to be engaged in pursuing excellence in the different facets of the business.
Quality has a bad marketing department
Hopefully your experience has been different than mine. Hopefully you’ve seen the real power of quality and understand its far reaching impact. And hopefully you’re an advocate for all it stands for and can provide. But from the many people I’ve talked to about this issue, we’ve all been sold a similar message.
See what I did there? I took a message and made it eye rollingly nerdy and something with which few people will resonate. No more! If we want to spread the incredible power of quality, we’re going to have to revolutionize our approach. The conversation about quality needs to change.
The content I’ll share will be geared towards that direction. We’ll introduce concepts in super user friendly ways, share content that expands your vision of quality, and highlight how quality is not the destination, it’s the ride. I’m looking forward to this journey with you.