What ever happened to “Total Quality”?

Six Sigma, TQM, Black Belts, Green Belts, Defects. Not too long ago the language of Total Quality Management was the lingua franca of business. For years, organisations sought to eliminate defects and deliver quality through repeatable and scalable processes. It all sounded so good. We were told that there was no need to trade off quality for cost or speed.


Where did it all go wrong?

  • Airlines are incapable of flying to schedule and guaranteeing that your bag make the trip with you. Flightaware reported 16,900 flight delays on one day alone (17 August 2022).

  • Customer service organisations consign callers to hours of mind-numbing hold music before randomly disconnecting them. According to one study, people will spend around 40 days of their life on hold with a call center!

  • Over 20 percent of first class mail in the US was delivered late in Q1 2021

  • More than 60 percent of people who use online food delivery services reported at least one incorrect delivery during 2021

  • Poor software quality was estimated to have cost U.S. companies $2 trillion in 2020.

  • Ford spent 17 years advertising that "Quality is Job #1", before quietly ditching the slogan in 1998. Now warrenty claims cost Ford $1,000 per vehicle.

Why, despite years of effort and billions of investment, does quality still suck?

  • The trade-off between quality and cost/speed is real. Quality costs more and takes longer which is the exact opposite of what most consumers want in an age of instant gratification

  • Technology is only a part of the answer - if you automate poor quality you still get poor quality (just faster!)

  • Maybe as a reaction to the cost of achieving high quality, the terms, Minimum Viable Solution and Minimum Viable Product have gained traction. These appear to be excuses to deliver products or services that barely meet a customer's expectations. The theory is that the provider can get feedback quickly and build such learnings into future versions. There are only two problems with that. First, customer expectations are not uniform. One customer's MVP maybe another's piece of rubbish. Second, many products never get beyond their MVP version.

  • Most important of all? PEOPLE. People remain the single most important factor in inventing, designing, building and delivering quality products and services. Too many so called quality projects focus on process and technology but ignore the critical element - people. People are the source of many quality problems but are also the answer to many of them.

For organisations looking to build quality into their customer value proposition there are some basic rules.

  1. Educate prospective customers as to the quality they can expect for the price they are willing to pay;

  2. Recognise that customers will pay a premium for some (not all) elements of high quality;

  3. Set expectations at reasonable levels;

  4. Deliver consistently on the quality standards adopted; and

  5. If you want to win in the marketplace, deliver higher quality at a lower price than the alternatives out there while still making an acceptable return on investment

Organisations that seem to do a good job on setting quality expectations and then consistenly delivering against them most of time include Apple, BMW, Tesla, Costco, Starbucks, Caterpiller and Heineken. However, success today is no guarantee of success tomorrow. Its only a few years ago that GE, Sony, Boeing and Xerox were recongnised as quality leaders.