Manufacturing Excellence: Acceptance or Excellence

August 27, 2007
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When we go on vacation, we want the best. When we go shopping, we expect the most for the least amount of money. When we ship to our customers, we give only acceptable product or service. I wonder why we love to receive excellence, yet prefer to give acceptable performance. There is a gap between expectations and delivery.

In the professional world the first goal of business is misstated as making money instead of serving customers well in order to make money. Business means sales, and continuing in business means delivering excellence for continued sales.

Until the 1970s, when global competition was lagging, acceptable performance was good enough because that was the best available to customers. As part of human nature, we tend to take the path of least resistance. That attitude of doing just enough worked well until the competition starting taking off. Early competition came from companies such as Toyota. When challenged for quality, Toyota aimed for perfection and planned for growth and 30 years later Toyota became the number one automaker in the world by continually achieving excellence.

What is acceptable? How do we practice acceptable level of performance? We tend to believe we only deliver excellence. Unfortunately, our work systems teach us to perform at the acceptable level, and the quality principles and tools that we have been using promote marginal performance. For example, we are trained in process thinking using PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act). If we look at its implementations, we spend more time checking and verifying the outcomes, instead of taking time to design for excellence. No wonder appraisal cost, an element of cost of poor quality, is high. Look around in shipping departments or in QA departments. Most verifications or inspections are designed to accept or reject based on the imposed arbitrary limits. As a matter of fact, we do not even define performance targets.

What is excellence then? How do we practice excellence? First, we must understand what excellence means. Excellence does not mean zero defects outside some arbitrary limits. Instead, excellence implies producing on target, thus producing product with the probability of practically zero defects. It is not the ability to ship zero defects, it is the ability to produce zero defects that counts. Installing inspections, tests, verifications, reviews or checks only perpetuate attitudes of mediocrity. We must stop using the word ‘acceptable’ if we want to grow our businesses profitably. Today, excellence survives and acceptable dies.

What is the difference? With the acceptable performance, we have blamed workers and outsourced their jobs to cut costs, yet still struggle to survive. We must learn now! Even the so-called lean is an acceptable version of Toyota Production System. Outcomes tell the story. Corporations implementing lean lay off employees, and Toyota continues to thrive.

While aiming for perfection, the focus is on design and engineering instead of on workers. In my experience, workers do what they are asked to do. How many times have we experienced a poor design given to production, yet expect a perfect product to be delivered to the customer?

It is easier to design with limits than for targets. It is easier to design a working product than a perfect product. We cannot approximate a design and perfect its production. Instead, we must introduce a perfect design with more qualified professionals for approximations in production with less qualified employees.

We must teach every employee the difference between acceptable and excellence, require our engineers design products and processes for excellence in operations by defining targets, and require minimal verification. This will create the culture of excellence, maximize profits and create opportunities for growth. We will become more intellectually engaged in what we do, rather than just doing it.

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