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Barbara A. Cleary


Five Contributing Factors of a Failed Reputation

Long-term quality demands eternal vigilance

Published: Monday, March 28, 2016 - 12:12

When giant companies known for the quality of their products and services find themselves suddenly in the news due to massive recalls—think Volkswagen, Toyota, John Deere, Craftsman, or Chipotle—the first question to emerge often is: What went wrong?

Before jumping to the conclusion that quality systems really don’t work (so why bother?), let’s consider some of the reasons why established improvement efforts fail:

1. When a pattern is established within an organization of producing only good products, a sloppy approach to assuring quality may result. Quality efforts are sustained, but often only under pressure from problems. These may include excessive waste and cost, which demand some kind of action to reduce defects. When things are going well, this pressure may be felt less keenly.

2. Failure to understand variation in processes can lead to out-of-control situations. If spec limits have been substituted for control limits, for example, process stability can’t be ensured.

The fact is that sometimes even unstable processes can perk along without failure—at least for a while. Defective products may even slip through, until a customer finally notices. In the meantime, a smugness about quality can ensue. We’re pretty good at convincing ourselves that everything is fine, even when it isn’t.

3. Complacency with respect to training assures limited knowledge of process control. If appropriate training in process management isn’t offered to all employees, there will be no process diligence to sustain.

W. Edwards Deming pointed to the sham of “worker training worker,” when information is passed on informally rather than through consistent professional training. Substituting on-the-job training for professionally guided learning means that the skills and understanding of process control will be watered down with each iteration. Insisting on professional training for every employee may prevent the kind of complacency that stems from turning training tasks over to the workers themselves.

4. Management changes can affect quality. A commitment to high-quality products and services must be sustained through all levels of the organization. If new leaders fail to make a commitment to quality, this nonperformance will ripple through the organization and undermine a once-successful quality effort. Again, professionally training everyone in the organization is imperative to ensure successful process management.

5. A singular focus on profits and earning reports without regard to customer satisfaction can be a death knell for quality. Cutting corners by choosing the supplier offering the lowest cost, rather than proof of quality, will bring an undesirable outcome somehow, somewhere. Eliminating training to save costs will have the same effect, of course.

Bottom-line success sometimes rests on short-term “solutions” that in fact may exacerbate existing quality problems. A company might save money by eliminating the quality manager’s position, however, the ensuing defects and failures will result not only in higher costs, but in the long-term loss of customers’ trust.

Think about the explicit and implicit costs of recalls. Once defective products have been identified by customers or consumer safety groups, an organization’s reputation is sullied in ways it may never overcome. The question concerning Volkswagen’s violations has become: Can VW survive? No one wants to hear a question like that.

A reputation for quality necessitates constant attention, to be sure. Understanding process behavior requires appropriate training and commitment. The odds of failure, like success, depend on everyone in an organization, from top to bottom.


About The Author

Barbara A. Cleary’s picture

Barbara A. Cleary

Barbara A. Cleary, Ph.D., is a teacher at The Miami Valley School, an independent school in Dayton, Ohio, and has served on the board of education in Centerville, Ohio, for eight years—three years as president. She is corporate vice president of PQ Systems Inc., an international firm specializing in theory, process, and quality management. She holds a masters degree and a doctorate in English from the University of Nebraska. Cleary is author and co-author of five books on inspiring classroom learning in elementary schools using quality tools and techniques (i.e., cause and effect, continuous improvement, fishbone diagram, histogram, Pareto chart, root cause analysis, variation, etc.), and how to think through problems and use data effectively. She is a published poet and a writer of many articles in professional journals and magazines including CalLab, English Journal, Quality Progress, and Quality Digest.