Probing the Limits: Shipping to a Friend

How does shipping a product to a friend vs. a stranger affect your decisions on quality?

It has always fascinated me that the quality profession is built around the word "quality"-a word that very few people can agree on how to define. The word is hard to define and most quality professionals have their own favorite definition that can vary widely between individuals.

The theoretical definition of quality can make for an interesting discussion, but when it comes to deciding what ships and what is rejected on the shop floor, quality needs to be defined for fabricators and inspectors in a way that is consistent, useful and productive. There isn't time to have an involved discussion about the complexities of defining quality when a ship date is approaching.

While I love sitting down and debating the best theoretical definition of quality with fellow quality professionals, I also was faced with the need to give a practical definition so that workers on the production floor were not lining up at my office asking, "Could you come look at this to see if it can ship?"

What I found most effective was to give an operational vs. a theoretical definition of quality to the people that needed to make quick decisions.

Developing an operational definition of quality recently has been influenced by my new experience of starting my own company. Our first customers were our friends, which created a unique situation. As I manufacture an order and put a friend's name on it, I look at the product and ask myself, "Do I feel good about shipping this to a good friend?" There have been several cases where I've unpacked the product, and changed or upgraded components before it ships so that I felt good about what my friends were receiving.

This situation can be turned into a great operational definition of quality: A quality product is one that you would feel good about shipping to a close friend. After experiencing this with my new products, I remembered that I used this approach when an inspector would stand at my production-floor office and want me to come look at something and make a call on a borderline quality issue. I would say, "Would you feel good about shipping it to a close family member?" That was all it normally took to answer their question-and empower them to make their own effective quality decisions on the production floor.

This definition made me think of how quality is treated in small towns where everyone knows each other well. What would happen if the chef at the small-town diner served a bad meal to a town resident vs. someone getting a bad meal at a restaurant in a big city where, for the most part, everyone is a stranger? How has the migration from small towns, where everyone knows everyone else, to big cities, where you buy most everything from strangers, affected quality in the United States?

Have there been times when you allowed a marginal quality product to ship because it was shipping to a stranger? If you were inspecting something that was borderline acceptable and the customer was your best friend, would you allow it to ship?

It seems to me that not knowing where a product is shipping and assuming it is going to a good friend might be the best and most practical way to approach quality on the production floor.

This approach can be used with other quality issues too. As a manager, I often was faced with the situation where someone in my department was upset with a co-worker and "really wanted to tell him off."

To try to get the two parties to resolve the issue in a quality manner, I used to say, "You need to go talk to that person and work this out, but I want you to do it as if you and your wife are going over to his house tonight for a dinner party. I want you to fix the matter at hand, but do it in a manner that you would be welcome at his house tonight."

I came up with this approach when I was upset with a co-worker who was hosting a party that night. I dealt with him in a much more constructive and effective way than my original plan of telling him off.

Try treating each shipment like it was going to a good friend and each conversation like you were talking to a party host. See if you find this unorthodox approach to quality improvement to be effective.

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