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Why Quality matters

January 5, 2010

A bunch of people out there believe that doing things better is the answer to our economic woes. I can’t argue with that. Until and unless we get to grips with the wholly unnecessary and avoidable malaise which has afflicted our country, we’re doomed to second world status. 

Few would argue that Quality, Service, Value are the cornerstones of a happy, prosperous and competitive economy. It is not good enough to explain the recent painful economic downturn on global macroeconomic conditions and wait for the upturn. No amount of economic or political smoke and mirrors will save a company, much less an economy, from the inevitable consequences of charging too much for indifferent products and services, produced wastefully. A high cost economy with diminishing competitive advantages cannot afford a £130 -160 billion budget deficit, growing at a rate of £11 billion per month.

It’s time for a transparent debate as to whether UK Plc wishes to reaffirm its commitment to quality or continue as a casino economy with a few beacon enterprises but a static domestic manufacturing sector and an increasingly outsourced service sector. Politicians acknowledge that cuts in public spending will be necessary to make inroads into this unsustainable deficit, mitigated by improvements in efficiency and productivity. But this begs the question as to why this didn’t happen earlier. The answer is that quality management, in its absolute sense, took a back seat when cash was king.

Public sector net debt has risen from 50 – 60% of UK GDP since 1999 and public spending now accounts for over 43% of the UK national budget, or £13,000 for every adult UK citizen. Unless radical inroads are made to the cost of providing services – or radical cuts – the UK’s credit rating will be downgraded. This will not only affect the government’s ability to borrow,  but will impact on every business left standing.  Only a concerted, nationwide drive towards reducing costs – not reducing the numbers of people in work, by the way – waste reduction but, above all, realistic, sustained continuous improvement, in the way we work, in private and public sectors, will reduce the deficit between what we make and what we consume and enable us to export our surplus, competitively, thus creating jobs. Failure to do so will cripple our economy. This much is self-evident.

The alternative to slash-and-burn is a root and branch revisiting of the Quality ethos. This in itself begs the question as to how and why we lost sight of these principles. One fundamental reason is that there is a fundamental semantic disconnect between the consumer perception of Quality and its technical application. Consumers value quality. Companies demand it from suppliers, but a significant number of businesses associate the term with quality assurance, compliance and conformance, which they regard as costing time, money and complexity whilst creating little added value. Standards and targets are important – the opposite is no consistency and no goals – but the first is an audit function and the second is an aspiration. The earliest formal definition of Quality states that:

Total quality control is an effective system for integrating the quality development, quality maintenance, and quality improvement efforts of the various groups in an organization so as to enable production and service at the most economical levels which allow full customer satisfaction. (A.V. Feigenbaum, 1956, Harvard Business Review).

The logic is simple and incontrovertible. Development, maintenance and improvement efforts are the basis of sustainability. Maintenance is relatively easy. Development should be a continous effort, but analysis of successive business cycles have shown that Quality is all-too-often a crisis driven initiative. Step changes in waste reduction, increased productivity, more satisfied customers and higher profits are often followed by a period of maintenance, characterised by audit and target-setting. But without holistic continuous improvement, entropy is inevitable and the root causes re-emerge. At this point the patient blames the medicine and fires the doctor and reaches for a new panacea.

Quality -or whatever you want to call it –  means making and doing things well and then working out how to do things better, at prices people can afford. There is no quick fix or magic potion – quite the reverse. We need to realign the ‘Q’ word and all its powerful nested values, tools and techniques, and rally our workforce around the slogan ‘making things better makes everything better.’ Customers need to be assured by the value and pleasure they derive from buying and using the best products and services that money can buy, not by adherence to international norms and standards. Workers need to be proud to deliver these goods, confident that in doing so, their careers and futures are assured. Anything less is simply not Quality.