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Alex Eksir

Quality Insider

Quality’s Highest Cost

Human lives

Published: Monday, July 24, 2006 - 22:00

We’ve all heard about how calamitously insufficient a quality standard of 99 percent would be:
  • One percent of airplanes crashing on take-off would mean nearly 200 domestic commercial airline crashes each day.
  • One percent of erroneously filled prescriptions would mean about 35 million incorrect medications dispensed in the United States every year.
  • One percent of newborns dropped in obstetrics wards would mean… Well, you get the point.

Familiar stuff, right? So familiar, in fact, that the examples above have pretty much stopped doing the useful work they once did to shock us out of a sense of complacency. I don’t mean to sound cold or callous, but nowadays when I hear statistics like those, my reaction is less “Wow!” and more “Yeah? So?”

Here’s an example that gets my attention, and it’s real. I heard it directly from a corporal in the U.S. Army. He said, “If the system doesn’t work, the mission fails. My buddies die. I die.”

“Sure,” you might be thinking, “Those are powerful words. Chilling, even. But the initial examples are matters of life and death, too.” You’d be right. They are, but there’s a difference. When you walk down the jetway in an airport, you don’t think of yourself as going into harm’s way. The prescription drug example is so effective because it cites a disconcerting exception.

Soldiers, on the other hard, live in harm’s way. And when it comes to soldiering, stakes of life and death aren’t the exception. They’re the point.

So why am I telling you all of this?
Because I spent 18 years working in the world of commercial electronics, and during that time I had responsibility for efforts aimed at total quality, and lean, and six sigma, and all the rest. I know those are all worthy goals and they represent serious, substantial challenges. I know how hard it all is.

It wasn’t until I entered the world of defense electronics 10 years ago that I began to understand what the cost of quality truly means. If it ever slips my mind, I’m reminded of it by people working on our nation’s ballistic missile defense system, who are quick to point out that in their world, defects wouldn’t be measured in failure rates. They’d be measured in “cities lost.”

One Air Force general I know says succinctly, “Mission assurance is everything.”

It’s a lofty ideal. Here’s how those words play out in the world of a U.S. military helicopter pilot: “From my perspective, being a rotary wing aviator, there is no glide path to landing in emergencies. When your engines fail, you’re a rock. That possibility is always in the back of any rotary wing aviator’s mind. I can’t imagine that that same feeling isn’t existent in every single function in any of the armed forces… that there is some failure mode that’s catastrophic. Any doubt you have takes up space in the back of your mind, space that should have been focused on fighting a war. And that makes us less effective. So the more our minds are divided, wondering about, ’Gosh, if my equipment fails, if I can’t communicate, if I can’t fly…’ If I’m freeing up that energy, then I’ve got more energy focused on the mission at hand.”

So what the general says is correct; mission assurance is everything. As such, it’s also quite daunting, because the complexity of the systems we’re talking about here is staggering, requiring levels of technological mastery and process robustness that were unimaginable even a few years ago.

Paradoxically, those technology and process components are the easy parts. They represent the “how” and the “what” of the work we do, and that’s where one’s attention naturally goes as things become more complex. The tougher question, though, is this: "Where will the energy and focus that are needed to achieve and sustain that lofty mission assurance level of performance come from?"

The answer is that the necessary energy and focus will come from reminding people of the “why” of their work. I happen to work in an industry where that reason is pretty clear, because not only are we talking about lives, we’re also talking about a way of life. Pretty heady stuff, just the sort of thing you need to get people to stay focused instead of worrying about the square footage of their office, or the number of paces from their parking space to the building entrance, or who the boss smiled at during the last staff meeting.

The common theme that applies to all businesses is this: The amount of energy available within the four walls of your business to do work is a constant. (Re-read your high school physics book if you doubt this.) The additional energy it will take to achieve whatever your version of mission assurance happens to be can only come from outside. You’ve felt it. It’s what causes the rush you get when you know that you’ve created something of real value for your customers.

If that doesn’t do it for your people, up the ante. Remind them that while they’re doing their work in air conditioned offices to pay their rent, their college tuition and their cable bill, there are brave young men and women who have gone into harm’s way—proudly, courageously, voluntarily—to make all of that possible for them.

Remember the 13 agonizingly direct words that should enable anyone with a sense of self and proportion to remember just why quality matters:

“If the system doesn’t work, the mission fails. My buddies die. I die.”

Discuss

About The Author

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Alex Eksir

Alex Eksir is the vice president and mission assurance executive for Raytheon’s Integrated Defense Systems business.