Quality should play a larger role in when a product is released.

During my career I had the privilege of working for a large company that designed and manufactured excellent products. At this company, the quality function was expected to play an independent and integral part in the development, manufacture and release of new products. The role was to serve as a customer advocate to ensure all known issues were documented and resolved prior to shipment.

In many organizations, however, this is not the case. All too often quality professionals struggle with the question of when a new product, or any product, is good enough to ship. With many types of products, achieving a defect-free state prior to the first shipment may not be reasonable or even possible. This is especially true for complex or innovative products where getting to market quickly is fundamental to the product’s success and, ultimately, the company’s survival.

The time-to-market issue with new products is actually more of a quality issue than an engineering one. Today products speed through the development process toward the earliest possible delivery (ship) date. In their zeal to “hit” the delivery date promised by sales and marketing, engineers compile a list of known defects and possible issues to determine if they should be corrected prior to first shipment. The decision to ship becomes an issue of assessing risk: “How much quality degradation can we allow because of known defects so that we can get to market faster, yet don’t lose consumer confidence because of perceived poor product quality?”

There are many examples of defect-ridden products that have been first to market, yet have captured the market and left competitors with steep mountains to climb to “catch up.” There are even more cases, however, where defect-laden products were first to market but lost consumer confidence and the company lost market share because of poor product quality.

When the quality of a new product is deemed “good enough” to ship highlights the reason why, in many instances, quality issues should be the foundation of business strategy decisions. Still, in many companies the quality function seems to be relegated to a role of compliance management rather than used to gain a strategic advantage.

With this said, however, part of the reason that quality professionals don’t play a larger strategic role in these type of decisions is that the quality profession may not have developed good answers to these questions. Typically the standard quality-based response is to evaluate the cost of a resolving a defect before shipping vs. the risk of the customer experiencing a problem, fixing the issue and determining the associated expenses. This method is used to determine if the issue is worth fixing, but some of the unknowns cloud the answer. What is the degree of customer pain, and what will be the effect on a customer’s repurchase decision?

If a product is innovative and offers consumers valued functions they have not seen before, it is nearly impossible to determine how much frustration they will deal with before the advantages of the innovations are overshadowed by quality issues. Standard quality-based analysis doesn’t do an adequate job of dealing with this scenario.

A friend of mine, a seasoned quality manager for a high-tech company, has struggled with this for a long time. It seems simple, but he finally realized that consumers like innovative products sooner rather than later and high quality better than low quality. The problem of trying to balance quality with speed to market can’t be turned into a formula because with innovative products there are too many unknown factors.

He decided to take a different approach and questioned if quality vs. time-to-market was a fair tradeoff. Research on his company’s engineering processes revealed huge opportunities for improvement. He found that with more upfront planning of a highly structured development process, the identification of process measurements, and the deployment of a preventive and corrective action process in engineering, significant improvements in development time and quality were achievable.

While he still faces the question of when a new product is good enough to ship, his quality group is working hard to make that an easier question to answer. He is now spending more energy upfront working with the engineers on their processes to integrate more advanced methods, such as thorough peer design reviews, that lead to higher quality at a faster rate.

Bottom line, in my years as a quality professional I have come to realize that “good enough” seldom is. Most quality professionals have found that living by the “good enough” myth is the root of many disappointments, resentments and failures! We must continue to strive to build a professional discipline that clearly develops answers to the question “When is it good enough to release?” and a new breed of product and quality managers who will say “Good enough never is.”

For more on this topic, read “Make Product Inspection a Friendly Affair” in Quality’s September 2009 issue.