Recently while attending a meeting of our local American Society for Quality (ASQ) section, I had a conversation with one of our members. The conversation focused on the issues of Six Sigma and lean manufacturing in the United States. Some of the thoughts from that conversation follow.

As quality professionals we continually find ourselves engaged in conversations asking, “What happens after Six Sigma and lean?” Even though lean manufacturing drives companies to many good things-lean, by itself, can’t correct all the problems facing the business world. At least in the near future, and maybe longer, the United States cannot be lean enough to offset the low-cost labor markets in the Middle East, Africa and other world markets.

The problem of market share isn’t due entirely to labor costs. Market share is a combination of cost and value but the broader issue is quality. As-delivered quality, or supplier quality as delivered to a customer, is certainly important, but long-term reliability may be the primary differentiator for customer retention.

It’s not the small percentage of nonconforming components that are found during the manufacturing and assembly processes, but the good parts that fail before the customer is finished using them that cause high levels of dissatisfaction. The problem seems to rest with reliability, which is more related to design. Once the product is in the hands of the end user, there is an expectation of long, uninterrupted usage.

When thinking about this, and related quality issues, I am reminded of something I learned many years ago while still in school. As an athlete playing baseball and football, our teams didn’t have many outstanding players, but we consistently won against much more talented teams. Why did that happen? We had coaches who were experienced, hardened and wise.

Our coaches, Ted Panish, a member of Bradley University’s famous five basketball teams (Peoria, IL), and Corwin Clatt, a former Chicago Cardinals’ NFL player in the late 1940s and early 50s, were sticklers for details and the fundamentals of their sports. They constantly drilled their teams on the finer points of the sport by making us practice blocking and tackling until, as players, we could execute those skills in our sleep. They were tough, and demanded commitment and excellence from their players. In the end, their teams were winners by working together to achieve a common goal.

The way blocking and tackling was done in the old days may not be the same way it is done today. It is, however, still about knowing what has to be done and performing it with rigor and discipline until results are predictably correct.

How does this relate to the issues of manufacturing quality and where we need to go from here?

U.S. businesses must consider a couple of things if they are to return to the levels of customer satisfaction that will entice people to purchase products and services.

First, companies need to return to the basics, and get back to the rigors of doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason. Process excellence is about rigor and discipline in execution and not about compromising product integrity.

Secondly, companies need to strive for strength and quality product and process design, followed by stringent validation of those designs before implementation takes place. There are far too many products being rushed to market before they have been fully validated. This causes too many engineering changes required to correct design issues after the product has been released for manufacturing. These changes drive costs upward, cut profit margins and have the potential to further complicate quality problems.

Business leaders have to give serious consideration to having design engineers be members of ASQ, and be certified as quality and reliability engineers as well as Six Sigma Black Belts.

We must stop “firefighting” and design “fire-resistant” products and processes. Success is found by knowing what the goal is, how to get there, and executing with rigor and discipline. We need to become proactive in preventive measures, and stop being so reactionary. Reducing the number of engineering changes to correct product problems could be the next approach to becoming lean.