When the subject of quality is discussed it’s a safe bet that many would suggest it needs to improve. Additionally, many consider that senior management is most responsible for that improvement.

One of the foremost authorities on this topic is the late Dr. Armand V. Feigenbaum. Dr. Feigenbaum, along with other quality professionals, has been quoted as saying “Quality is everyone’s job.” Others have challenged that, saying management is responsible. So, the question remains: “Just who is responsible for quality?” 

All action and processes flow from the top—money, direction, quality standards, performance standards, everything! Nothing flows downward until the management system turns the handle on the faucet. Of course, this also means that when the handle is turned the other way, things stop flowing. Quality is not a grass roots methodology. Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a noted quality guru, said, “Quality starts in the boardroom.” Therefore, quality also flows from the top, right out of the faucet.

When I say quality, I’m not just talking about goodness. While the goodness standard also flows from the boss, that issue is not going to be discussed here. I’m talking about a product or service that meets one of the definitions for quality as put forth by ASQ or quality giants like Dr. Feigenbaum or Phil Crosby—free of defects, or zero defects, or a product or service free of deficiencies.

As stated earlier, Dr. Feigenbaum’s “Quality is everybody’s job,” has been taken out of context because his message was purposely incomplete.

A photograph in Life magazine many years ago has stuck with me. In the photo, three professional baseball players stand looking down at a baseball laying on the ground. It was somebody’s responsibility to catch that ball. They all went after it, but nobody caught it.

What many don’t realize is that Feigenbaum intended his concept to be about establishing accountability for quality. Because quality is everybody’s job, it may become nobody’s job! The idea is that quality must be actively managed and have visibility at the highest levels of management.

A big part of Crosby’s Zero Defects concept is that people perform to the standard that is set or accepted by their manager. People spend a lot of time, thought, and energy trying to figure out what will please (or displease) their manager. If you’re the manager and the product has problems, it’s your fault because as Dr. W. Edwards Deming theorized, management owns 94% of all the problems; however, everyone played a part in the defective product reaching the customer.

Everyone has someone they report to. Walt, a machine shop technician, realizes there is a CEO and may even be able to recall his or her name. However, Walt’s working hours, salary and other benefits come from June, Walt’s immediate supervisor. Walt doesn’t see the company’s CEO as his actual leader; June is the only leader that Walt thinks about and tries to please.

According to former U.S. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, “Responsibility is a unique concept; it can only reside within a single individual. You may delegate it, but it is still with you. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You many disclaim it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it. If the responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else.”

That’s a powerful thought. All leaders should have that message carved into their desktop. The CEO shares the responsibility for quality with the rest of the leaders in the organization, right down to Walt’s boss, June. Walt, of course, is responsible for doing his job right using the process that was handed to him. If the process—or Walt—is incapable of meeting the requirement, Walt must alert June who is responsible for correcting the situation. If Walt doesn’t do his job right, or June doesn’t follow through and a defective product gets out, Walt, June and the CEO must share the ultimate responsibility.

Unfortunately, many don’t seem to understand their responsibility. It’s not uncommon for some managers to blame “those people,” meaning the workers, for less than desirable quality. Those managers, however, don’t understand that he or she owns 94% of the responsibility. That type of manager screams, “How the heck did that get out?” when the customer complains.

Every time the “responsibility” issue comes up, think about that baseball on the ground. Everybody’s business can easily become nobody’s business and the game is lost!