What has happened to the quality professional? For some time, we have begun to talk and act more like part of the financial department rather than quality assurance.

We say that our efforts are directed at ensuring that customers get what they want and deserve. We want customers to be overjoyed with our product and services. We tell everyone that quality function deployment (QFD) is the way to achieve great designs, but we tend not to use the tool in many of our design processes.

Certainly, QFD is challenging, and many professional engineers do not readily embrace it. The tool works very well, and quality professionals should lead the effort, but most don’t. A small percent of Six Sigma (DFSS) projects uses QFD as it should be used, taking design from the final product level to the component level.

We are measuring ourselves in dollars saved or reduced cycle time (all good measurements), but we tend to minimize, or avoid, focus on increased customer satisfaction, or mean time to failure (MTTF). We used to stress that quality was the first between three equals – quality, cost, and schedule (delivery), but in our actions, we seem to be putting it last!  

The quality professional, maybe due to the influence of Six Sigma, is focused on cost reduction, not quality improvement! With the advent of Six Sigma, Black Belts were created to lead team efforts to reduce variation (a quality metric). Many organizations justified Black Belts by telling management that each one should save about $250,000 per project and complete 4-6 projects per year. Management was also told that if Black Belts do not deliver these results, they are under-performing and should be replaced.

Does this sound like a quality objective or a financial objective? I know no one in finance whose job depends on saving $1 million dollars annually. If the primary measurement is dollars, the focus is on reducing cost, not reducing variation, or improving quality!

The real quality objective is to achieve increasingly better products and services.

One large company, disappointed in their quality performance, hired me as the new quality manager whose first assignment was to evaluate their lack of improvement in quality. Since this company had implemented a Six Sigma initiative a while back, they seemed surprised at their declining quality indicators and wanted to discover why this happened.

We started by randomly selecting recently completed projects for review. The only criteria was that the projects had to be complete, and representative of projects completed within the last year. After analyzing five projects, outcomes indicated:

  1. Staff support activities went from a review deficient the previous year to a profit the succeeding year. A review indicated this turnaround was largely due to staff reduction, mainly in the quality functions. There were no process metrics or quality assurance measurements established to monitor process or product quality.
  2. Significant process changes were implemented to reduce processing time. There was no mention of quality measurements, before or after. Changes were mainly a result of reduced or eliminated verification gates, which negatively impacted staff levels.
  3. Another project further reduced year over year the number of quality support personnel. This was done through combining and eliminating personnel. Nothing documented the effect on operations personnel or ensuring internal or outgoing quality measurements.
  4. Combining manufacturing engineering staff with quality assurance personnel at one site resulted in substantial payroll reductions. There was no documented plan to ensure quality levels of support to factory floor operations.
  5. Inventory reduction initiatives reduced expense. No measurements were documented to ensure delivery dates were met.

Most were process-redesign projects, not minimizing variation projects. With my experience with Six Sigma, this is reflective of many companies using this approach. This may be why Six Sigma programs have lost some of their luster.

As quality professionals, we should support projects to redesign processes and to reduce inventory levels. To eliminate excess costs is important to everyone concerned. As for quality, however, it has little positive effect upon non-quality costs like scrap, rework, defects, or customer satisfaction. For any project, the concern is that without the proper safeguards in place, quality can deteriorate.

A disturbing number of senior managers in all industries have seemed to lose interest in quality. Shame on them, but equally shameful on the quality professional as both have lost focus on quality. We are more interested in reducing cost, removing waste, and reducing cycle time. All admirable but not necessarily directly related to quality enhancement.

Maybe it’s time we got back to basic quality principles. We talk about getting to the root cause of problems. Well, we need to get to the root results of our actions by ensuring all projects include measurements to ensure quality. It’s critical to measure the level of customer satisfaction, improvement in mean time to failure (MTTF), reducing percent defective, preventing product recalls, and lowering return rates – not just focus on dollars saved, inventory turns, or process performance.

Quality just doesn’t happen; it must be nurtured every day with every action and project. The real quality objective is to achieve increasingly better products and services. Peter Drucker, the late educator and author, said, “What gets measured gets managed.” As many organizations have discovered, without focusing on quality, the wrong measures can lead to negative results!