Thousands and thousands of manufacturers struggle every day trying to guard the back door of their organization to stop defective products and services from reaching the customer. For the most part, it is a thankless and impossible job. Many times there are toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose arguments and even an occasional fistfight.

Actually, it is easy and even fun to produce a quality product or deliver a quality service. If one has the skills, the equipment and the right attitude, why would it not be easy? But the toe-to-toe disagreements do happen, defective products are delivered and shoddy services are performed.

It is only when top management takes charge and sets the correct performance standard, and then backs it with time and money, that a quality product or service is delivered. Then, quality is easy.

Defects, or mistakes, must be prevented, not found and fixed. There are several important elements in preventing defects. The zero defects (ZD) concept and the right quality management and control tools can make it happen. However, if the ZD concept is not understood, the tools will not work. And if the tools are not used, the ZD concept can work against a manufacturer.

Concept of Zero Defects

Concept of zero defects

Phil Crosby created the ZD concept, and had a wonderful challenge for those who wanted to argue about it. He simply asked, "What part of zero don't you understand?" Zero means no or none; defects are characteristics that do not meet the specification.

Forgotten by many and unknown by most people under 40, zero defects was probably the simplest and most effective defect prevention tool ever conceived. From about 1960 to the mid-1970s, every major company in the United States conducted a zero defects program: General Electric, General Motors, Ford, RCA, Sylvania, Chrysler, Martin, Lockheed and Boeing, as well as the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force. They all had a ZD program, as did thousands of their suppliers. There was even an American Society for Zero Defects. Today, few companies have such a program.

Why is the zero defects movement almost extinct? Many companies that had a ZD program did not really understand how it worked; they just put up posters. Now, the same people are off chasing other ideas such as Total Quality Management or Six Sigma. New ideas come along, but the zero defects idea is sound and it always works. For quality to be easy, understand and implement the ZD concept and use the tools of quality management.


Skeptics seem to equate zero defects with perfection. That is only true if perfection is the quality standard. A defect is a characteristic that does not conform to its quality standard-a mistake or an error. So, zero defects does not mean perfection; it means no mistakes or no errors.

Very few, if any, quality standards call for perfection. There is usually some target requirement and some sort of tolerance limit. If a characteristic exceeds the tolerance limits, it is defective; it is a mistake. Zero defects does not mean that mistakes will never

happen-zero defects means that defects are never acceptable. Zero defects is a performance standard. That is as complicated as it gets.

A performance Standard

When correctly presented, ZD tells all employees that defects are not acceptable in any part of the company activity. The zero defects performance standard must be applied to all departments including accounting, engineering, human resources, purchasing, production, quality, maintenance, sales and marketing, as well as to suppliers. If defects do occur-and they will-action must be taken to prevent their recurrence. If management does not adopt and make the standard of zero defects clear, employees will search for the performance standard they think will please their leader. If management is inconsistent in its performance standard, the quality of products and services will be inconsistent.

Of course, everything starts with the top executive-the boss. The boss must adopt zero defects in his personal performance standard. He must make it clear that zero defects is the standard for each and every direct report, and those managers must pass it on. The zero defects performance standard must travel all the way down the food chain. If a manager, supervisor or employee cannot accept the zero defects performance standard, get rid of them. Who wants an employee, particularly a manager, who thinks it is okay to make mistakes?

If a manager does not understand the zero defects performance standard, has a problem even saying the words or cannot demand zero defects performance, then there will always be a few defects to manage. Time and creative talent will be spent finding and fixing problems, explaining embarrassing mistakes and ultimately paying the price with lost profit.

Seven Laws of Defect Prevention

There are seven natural laws that govern zero defects. These laws apply in commercial and consumer manufacturing and service organizations. These rules apply to government and military operations. They apply to all organizations.

In organizations where the seven laws are understood and followed, products and services are produced that consistently conform to the quality requirements. These are happy companies with happy customers. Where these laws are unknown, or ignored, the reverse is true.

The moral is this: Understand and follow these seven simple laws to reach zero defects.

1. People perform to the standards set, or accepted, by their leader.

Stated another way, the product or service looks like the management. Employees want to know what is expected of them. They spend a good bit of time wondering what their leader wants. If the leader does not make a performance standard clear, people will perform to the standard they think their leader wants.

A manager who does not understand that he is the one who determines the quality of the product or service is easy to spot. If a customer finds a defective product, the manager yells, "How did that get out?"

It got out because it was made incorrectly. It was made incorrectly because that manager made his performance standard clear that a few mistakes are acceptable. The question itself puts the blame on the inspector. No action will be taken to prevent the defect, it will happen again and the manager will scream again. The cycle will continue.<

2. Quality means conformance to the requirement.<

There are many, many definitions of quality. The definition conformance to the requirement lets a manufacturer know if he has a quality product or service, or if he has something else. If the requirement needs to be changed, officially change it.

3. Quality is an absolute.

A product or service either conforms to its requirements or it does not. If it conforms, it is quality. If it does not, it is something else. Consider the field goal kicker in football. The quality requirement is to kick the ball over the crossbar, between the goal posts. If the ball sails anywhere between the posts and over the bar, points are awarded. That is quality. If the ball goes anywhere else in the entire universe, it is something else. Quality is an absolute.

4. All products and services must have clear quality standards.

The quality standards are the specifications-the requirement with which to conform. Such specifications can be found on engineering drawings, photographs, manuals, models and other formal documents. One might think this law would be automatic-of course all manufacturers have clear documented quality standards. Then why are those people arguing about what is correct and what is not? If quality is conformance to the requirement, the requirement must be clear and formal, not subject to unofficial change. If one cannot conform to the requirement, maybe the requirement should be officially changed to what the manufacturer and customer really need.

5. All errors are caused by a combination of three things: poor attitude, lack of ability and built-in problems in the workplace.

Attitudes are thought habits that can be changed. Lack of ability can sometimes be improved with training. Problems in the workplace must be identified and eliminated. A zero defects mentality deals with these error causes.

Sometimes people have a dual attitude. They tend to demand error-free work in the things they buy or the services they receive, but when it comes to their own work, a few defects are acceptable. After all, they are only human, and "to err is human." Ask that same person how many defects are acceptable in the new car he plans to buy. How many mistakes can his dentist make? Are a few mistakes in his paycheck acceptable? Zero defects attacks the dual standard.

Employees must have the ability to do their work correctly, or they usually will do it wrong. It is common for the human resources department not to feel responsibility for the quality of the product or service. But, they are the ones who select and hire the people who make the mistakes. Hiring is a good place to start quality improvement.

6. The boss is responsible for quality.

The boss must set the performance standard and provide the wherewithal to produce a quality product or service. If the product or service does not meet its quality requirements, it is the boss' fault. While the responsibility for quality can be shared, the boss' share never gets smaller. The responsibility for quality cannot be given to the quality department, quality circles, Six Sigma black belts or any other person. The product or service looks like the management.

7. The boss must adopt the performance standard of zero defects and make it known.

The performance standard of zero defects means that no defects are acceptable, and that if they occur, corrective action will be taken to prevent them from recurring. The ZD performance standard also means that quality management will accept and promote the idea of preventing defects, not finding them and fixing them.

Quality is Easy

It can be easy and enjoyable to produce a quality product or service. Wrestling with defective products and placating angry customers is a miserable way to live. Either way, it all starts with the boss.

If an organization is struggling with quality problems, question the performance standard. Is it clear? Does it permit defects? Is the performance standard zero defects? Six Sigma says a few defects are acceptable.

Question the attitude of employees at all levels. Then find out if people have the ability to do mistake-free work. Finally, a manager should ask employees about built-in problems in their workplace that prevent them from doing their work correctly every time. Get rid of those problems.

Quality Tech tips

  • Zero defects starts with the leader of the organization.
  • Defects must be prevented, not found and fixed.
  • Zero defects means that defects are never acceptable.
  • Quality means conformance to the requirement.
  • All products and services must have clear quality standards.