In this month’s column I’ll discuss ethics and its relationship to quality. Over the years I’ve written a few columns about how important it is for organizations to take care of their customers, even when an event occurs that’s beyond their control. This might be considered just ‘good business practices’ or it might also be a legal matter. However, in some cases it really boils down to being an ethical matter. After discussing this issue in a recent advanced quality course, one of our students raised an interesting question. “What do ethics have to do with quality?”

At its core, it is a very good question. For many, including many quality professionals, quality is just a matter of making sure that products or services conform to specifications or meet the customer’s needs. For others it may be about numbers which most of us have to confront each working day: 3.4 defects per million opportunities, zero complaints, 98-percent on-time delivery, Cpk > 1.33, etc.

The numbers, however, are really the results of our products and processes. Maybe the actual bottom line question is “What’s our motivation for quality?” What makes us strive for consistently lower levels of defects? Some individuals and organizations might assume the answer is really quite simple. They might truly believe that the motivation is primarily financial. “We have to make good products because if we make poor products our organization is not going to make a profit for our shareholders and eventually we’ll go out of business.”

Few quality professionals will be in total agreement with this line of thought; maybe to some degree, of course, but not totally. It’s true that if organizations produce poor products, eventually it’s going to cost them—fewer repeat customers, lost sales and consequently lower revenues. However, if the concern or motivation for quality is limited to finances, those organizations are going to be surpassed by competitors who are motivated by other concerns. They might understand that as Juran, Deming, Crosby, etc., taught us that in general if organizations focus on ‘making it right the first time’ and ‘satisfying customer expectations,’ profit will follow. 

We should all strive to make good products or provide excellent service because, in the final analysis, it’s the right thing to do. It’s all about a mindset. We should do the best that can be done because anything less is like cheating. Cheating the customer by not providing the best that we have to offer; and I would also argue, cheating ourselves because we accepted something less than our best. We must want to produce and sell a product or service that we personally would be pleased to own or use. Recently a student in one of our quality courses remarked that she does her best because it is possible that one of her own family members might be depending on that very product, and their life might lie in the balance on how well it performs. Talk about making quality personal!

If quality is viewed as being strictly financially motivated, the tendency might be to focus only on the minimum requirements to make it just good enough. What actions contribute directly to the bottom line? How much do we invest in our quality processes to provide a product or service that meets the customer’s stated expectations? All energy is directed toward what customers say they want, but in the final analysis, that might not be good enough.

An ethical motivation will cause each of us to look beyond the customer’s stated expectation, beyond product specification and beyond the bottom line. We must ask questions such as: Will all customers benefit? Are there any unstated customer expectations? What is the environmental effect? How does this affect our employees? Taking an ethical approach causes each of us and our organizations to look at their respective system as a whole, even at areas that may not directly affect products or services. Dr. Genichi Taguchi might equate this ethical approach to his philosophy of the loss function. Dr. Taguchi believed that the loss to society should be viewed on a broad scale and includes such issues as customer dissatisfaction and the impact of a bad reputation in the market place. His was a totality approach.

 Quality can’t be just about numbers. If it is, then we’ll lose the game in the market place. Quality has to be about desire, commitment and a motivation to do what’s right— not just what’s right for our customers or our company, but simply what’s right. That’s the only way any of us can really succeed.