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Mike Richman

Quality Insider

Do We Still Have the Patience for Quality Improvement?

Four experts weigh in

Published: Monday, June 9, 2014 - 07:32

The foundations of the quality industry go back decades, centuries, even millennia. In that course of time, men and women of various backgrounds and nationalities contributed wisdom distilled from their hard-earned experiences to help develop the tools and techniques that help good organizations become great.

This consensus of opinion insists that quality improvement only takes root when top management is actively engaged and the culture of the organization can be modified—two things that usually go hand-in-hand. If you think that this requires patience, you are correct. True culture change that lasts and reinvents an organization rarely happens quickly. But in today’s “give-it-to-me-now” business world, do we still have the patience for the delayed gratification of a properly implemented quality improvement journey as it was laid down by our performance excellence forebears?

The question

That is the question at the heart of a comment we recently received from a loyal reader, Prashant Swaroop, who works for a leading information technology company headquartered in India. Swaroop is a quality assurance engineer at his firm, a role which he has occupied for the last 12 years.

Swaroop’s e-mail to us posed the following provocative query:

“I have read about Deming, Juran, Crosby, Feigenbaum, and Shewhart, and how they applied their tools and practices to solve day-to-day problems. I tried to learn what they recommended and why, and how those recommendations helped industry.

“However, they all used the traditional model of management, which was all about culture and understanding and applying the basic quality tools. Maybe the time was such that it worked back then, but in today's world of Twitter and Facebook and Google, when even a delay of one second can be too long, how can we expect people to use control charts, check sheets, Pareto, or Kano models? Leaders and managers don't have time for these methods. Fast delivery is what's important. Companies are only interested in cost savings rather than making their processes more efficient. Teaching leaders quality and expecting them to listen and become an expert or gain something of use from that knowledge is practically impossible.

“Hence, I now have a feeling that quality management's teachings don’t fit in with today’s world. Today, the quality professional’s role is limited to getting certifications and cutting cost by any means necessary, with culture change being much less important. So how do we survive? I think our role will cease to exist in the next five to 10 years because the old management principles are outdated.

“What do you think Deming or Juran would do? What should be done?”

These questions are provocative, and in seeking equally provocative answers, we turned to four of the leading thinkers in our industry: Donald Wheeler, Thomas Pyzdek, Mike Micklewright, and Joseph DeFeo.

Stick to the basics: The process behavior chart

Donald Wheeler is a Fellow of both the American Statistical Association and the American Society for Quality, and is the recipient of the 2010 Deming Medal. He is an educator, trainer, and writer in the field of statistics.

“Much that is written about quality today is contradictory and confusing, with much of the emphasis being upon reengineering every process rather than learning how to do things better,” says Wheeler. “Because reengineering is both time-consuming and expensive, I can see where Swaroop might have a question about how to take the time to redo everything in the middle of operating in a competitive environment.

“However, there is a distinct difference between developing new products and the marketing, production, delivery, and support of those products. Prashant fails to make this distinction. I have discovered what works in practice and what does not work. What works in practice is actually quite simple: Take the data produced by your process and plot them on an XmR chart. When the chart identifies a change in your process, find out why the change occurred and take appropriate action on the process. Everything else amounts to unnecessary complications. This one simple approach has turned companies around, has changed red ink to black ink, and has created virtual monopolies as companies offer the best product at the lowest price.

“Aristotle taught us that we can identify the causes that affect our process by studying the times when the process changes. Thus, the idea behind the process behavior chart is more than 2,300 years old. It is an idea that transcends technology, culture, and society. It has been used successfully in virtually all types of businesses, operations, and industries.

“However, if we are too distracted to listen to Aristotle, if we are too impatient to learn from our processes, then we are likely to suffer the consequences of continually troubleshooting the same problems year after year. And the train wrecks, recalls, and product updates will continue as each new product has its own new-and-improved faults and weaknesses.”

Causation for root cause analysis, correlation for immediate action

Thomas Pyzdek is a longtime consultant, trainer, and author. His answers to Swaroop’s questions spoke to the rise of technology as the key factor that has changed the approach to quality while simultaneously facilitating breakthroughs in the speed and accuracy of analysis.

“I agree that the quality profession badly needs to modernize its approach,” says Pyzdek. “The need becomes more urgent—and more easily accomplished—as computer power and big data algorithms advance. Traditional tools like control charts, check sheets, Pareto, or Kano models are what Genichi Taguchi referred to as “offline tools.” These were designed to help identify the root causes of problems and find ways to improve process and product quality.

“By contrast, big data tools are designed not to find causation, but to determine correlations to guide immediate action. Big data requires that quality professionals rethink their assumptions that data and computing power is scarce and that analysis consists of experts carefully poring over data to divine cause-and-effect relationships before taking action. The quantity of data now available is huge and the computing power needed to crunch it is plentiful and cheap. Using big data techniques, we can get a near-instant indication of how best to proceed in a fast-developing quality crisis, while more traditional tools can be applied later to help determine how to best avoid the next crisis.”

Pyzdek offers an example of how this might play out in the world of social media: “Say your organization is being bashed on Twitter,” says Pyzdek. “Big data resources can quickly identify the trend and alert a crash response team to respond at once. If the issue involves [long-term] quality problems, it would be natural that a quality professional be a member of this team. Later, after the crisis has passed, the quality member of that team can lead the slower but vitally important effort to identify root causes and perform corrective actions.”

Looking in the mirror

Mike Micklewright is a passionate advocate for continuous improvement and lean methodology. He is a frequent speaker, author, and trainer. Micklewright approached the Swaroop note from the perspective of principles and the importance of customers, and asks quality professions to take a hard look at themselves to improve efficiency.

“By definition, principles are fundamentally accepted rules of action or conduct that are generally inarguable depending on one’s purpose or goal, i.e., raising a family, playing a sport, or building a business,” Micklewright says. “W. Edwards Deming’s principles such as ‘create constancy of purpose’ and ‘break down barriers between departments' will live on forever because they are inarguable for all companies and all industries if they are to run more effectively. Professionals, whether in quality, lean, or some other group, will always have a role in developing cultures and business practices to support these practices and fight the resistance against them.

“The need for speed in the business world has always existed, and companies have always been interested in short-term cost savings. These tendencies have and will continue to place pressure against focusing on quality first. On the other hand, perhaps professionals should also be looking at their processes to ensure that they are effective and efficient in creating satisfaction for both internal and external customers. Quality professionals should be looking to streamline all processes and make them more useful to the company.

“I once required a new group of Green Belts to analyze the effectiveness of control charts within a company that had used these charts extensively for decades. The Green Belts found that 95 percent of the control charts were done wrong, and either provided erroneous data or useless data for their given processes. None of the control charts had been previously analyzed, and none of them affected process change in real time—they were used for show, though any discerning customer would have seen through the façade.

“Quality professionals often do not analyze the effectiveness and efficiency of their own processes, which gives the quality department a reputation of being bureaucratic, slow, and of little value in driving improvements. If quality professionals add value by driving improvements that improve quality, thus improving predictability and on-time shipments, thus improving productivity and reducing costs, thus reducing lead times, any top executive will be supportive.”

Changing titles, changing responsibilities

Joseph DeFeo is the CEO and president of Juran Global, and a well-regarded speaker and author. DeFeo considers that quality professionals (who are often called something else) need not be afraid of the speed of business, because the fastest-moving organizations need improvement activities just as much, if not more, than their slower brethren.

“The premise that the role of quality managers will disappear is partly true,” says DeFeo. “The old practitioners of quality management will cease to exist, but the role [of improvement agents] is thriving and so are their companies. They are not called quality managers; they go by other names, like vice president of OpEX, vice president of customer experience. Why? Because quality management has moved its focus from products to organizations. When moving to a product focus, most organizations broaden the role and drop the word ‘quality’ to gain acceptance organizationwide. This trend will continue.

“Joseph M. Juran would say that quality managers must continue to change. They must move from a reporter and standards implementer to an internal consultant helping the organization continuously improve. The universal principles espoused by Juran last forever, but they need to be modified and adapted for each organization.

“Today we must deliver superior quality to satisfy the nanosecond-minded customer at the lowest possible cost and with little failure over time. To do that requires that quality be designed into the product or service from the beginning, not detected after the fact. Lean Six Sigma is today’s method to design products, processes, and services to meet these difficult targets.

“I do believe that quality managers are changing, as is their profession, but the function is not going away. As a matter of fact, there is a greater need for quality experts today because the costs of failure are so high. We need to be ready when the rare but critical failure will occur and correct it quickly. Organizations will always look for higher quality and lowest cost to maximize profit. Whatever function provides the best help in doing that will survive, and the rest will not.”

Turning words into actions

The quality industry has indeed been built over time by perceptive professionals with expertise in statistical analysis, methodologies, business management, and finance. Some of them did their work decades ago; others, like the ones whose words you have just read, are in the field now, making fresh contributions and achieving new insights, right at this very moment.

Swaroop’s comments harken back to some of the glorious days in this industry's history. But as he mentioned, this is a new time and the rules have changed; of course it is, and naturally they have. If you could hop into a time machine and query quality professionals in 1946, or 1980, or 2000, or 2009, they would tell you the same thing—fundamentals have changed, the speed of business prevents us from doing what needs to be done, management does not care, etc. Those statements were all true then, as they are all true now. And each time, the changes wrought by advancements in science, technology, and communications only adds to the importance of the quality function.

The title may be different but the role and the responsibility is always the same—to gather data, to interpret it, and to find what Juran called “the vital few” pieces of that data that most affect quality, and to tweak those processes to achieve lasting improvement. And sure… to do all that faster and better than ever before. Has it ever been otherwise?

Quality improvement is a foundational element upon which modern society has been built, but the work is never easy and it is rarely appropriately acknowledged. Yes, customers, management, and shareholders are impatient, and getting more so all the time. Yes, doing the work well and doing it quickly seem mutually exclusive. And yes, the role can be frustrating and underappreciated, but it is also necessary; for proof, see how quickly poor quality is noticed by stakeholders everywhere.

As Deming once said, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”



About The Author

Mike Richman’s picture

Mike Richman


(Sigh...) There's nothing new here

Here's an article I wrote almost five years ago for QD:


Anything sound familiar?

I'm hardly blowing my own horn, but, rather, making people aware of the outstanding work of Ron Snee -- a statistician who has been thinking about such things for years (as in, early '80s). Regarding "big data," he and Roger Hoerl wrote a wonderful article for a recent Quality Progress that anyone should read before diving into the depths of:

Continuous - Recording of - Administrative - Procedures. (Work out the acronym for yourselves).

As a matter of fact, anything written by those two is worth reading.

Davis Balestracci

Your piece June 6th

Hi Mr. Richman. I'd suggest you read my piece on CERM Magazine titled "The Risks of Excessive Quality". Thank you.

We Can't Afford to be Patient Anymore

Ask anyone in healthcare, patients are impatient and with good reason. Healthcare is still sluggish and error-prone. If we don't accelerate the rate of improvement in healthcare, the costs will cripple us.

As Pyzdek said: We need to modernize our approach. As Wheeler said: It's actually quite simple. As Micklewright said: We need to take a hard look at ourselves.

Instead of the one-size-fits-all Green Belt and Black Belt trainings currently deployed, maybe we need to tailor training to the company and it's problems. Teaching people things they don't need is a form of overproduction and waste.

As I discussed in the Four Hour Black Belt, we can change the approach to deliver results, not training, and achieve deep, lasting understanding of improvement methods as a byproduct of solving real problems.

Customers expect suppliers to be better, faster and cheaper than they were before.

Can Lean Six Sigma expect to be excluded from this requirement?