Quality Magazine

Probing the Limits: Is It Good Enough to Ship?

November 1, 2005
By taking a different perspective on this question, strategic advantages are gained.

Quality professionals constantly struggle with the question of when a new product is good enough to ship. In many types of products, getting them defect-free prior to the first shipment isn't reasonable or possible. This is particularly true for complex products where getting to market quickly is fundamental to the product's success.

In many products, such as high technology-based products, being first to market gives the product a huge advantage in capturing mindshare in the market. Being last to market puts the product at a huge disadvantage.

Industry insiders understand that this time-to-market issue with new products is really more of a quality issue than an engineering issue. As products race through the development process toward the earliest possible ship date, companies evaluate lists of known and possible defects to determine if the defect needs to be addressed before the first shipment. The decision to ship becomes an issue of assessing quality risks. The fundamental question becomes: How much quality degradation can we allow because of known defects so that we get to market quickly, yet don't lose consumer confidence because of poor quality product?

There are many examples of defect-ridden products that have been first to market, yet have captured the market. There also are cases where highly defective products were first to market but lost consumer confidence and the company lost market share because of poor quality.

This common and vitally critical business decision on when the quality of a new product is good enough to ship is another example of why quality issues are the foundation of business strategy decisions. Once again, it is ironic that the quality function seems to be dismissed in many companies to a role of compliance management when this function should be leveraged to gain strategic advantage.

Part of the reason that quality professionals don't play a bigger strategic role in decisions such as this is that the quality profession has not developed good answers to questions such as, "When is a product good enough to ship?"

In simple terms, the standard quality-based answer is to evaluate the cost of a defect to see if it is worth fixing. If a product is innovative and offers consumers valued functions that they have not seen before, it is nearly impossible to determine how much quality frustration they will deal with before the advantages of the innovations are overshadowed by the defects. Standard quality methods don't do a good job dealing with this.

As a seasoned quality manager for a high-tech company, I struggled with this question for a long time, and I've come to some conclusions that have helped me deal with this "good enough to ship" issue. My main conclusion was that I was approaching the question in the wrong manner.

We know that consumers like innovative products sooner rather than later and that consumers like high quality better than low quality. The problem of trying to balance quality with speed to market can't be turned into a formula or decision process because with innovative products there are too many uncertain and unquantifiable factors.

I've decided to address this important and fundamental question of when a product is good enough to ship by taking a different approach. My first insight is to question if the quality vs. the time-to-market question is really a trade-off. Research on engineering processes show that they are very immature and there are huge opportunities to improve. With more early planning, a more structured development process, process measuring, and preventive and corrective action deployed in engineering, huge improvements in development time and quality have been achieved.

While we still face the question of when a new product is good enough to ship, we are working hard to make that an easier question to answer. I'm spending more energy up-front working on the engineering process to integrate more advanced methods, such as thorough peer design reviews, that lead to higher quality products faster.

Based on the research and my experience, I'm confident that developing new products faster and at higher quality levels is achievable if a persistent effort is made.