Common Sense Quality
You've heard of the quality gurus. They've have been with us for quite a while. In 1946, at the conclusion of World War II, the War Department sent Edwards Deming to Japan to help with the rebuilding effort. There he introduced the notion of statistical process control. While his ideas are completely valid, for most, but not all small to midsize businesses they are the rough equivalent of killing a fly with a nuclear bomb. It'll work, but the cost may well exceed the benefit.
In the early 1980's Phil Crosby taught us that quality is free. At the time there was a widely held perception that to improve quality a company had to spend money. High quality equals high cost. To be sure, there are clearly situations where spending money will help to improve quality. For example, replacing an old machine with one that is state of the art can often help to improve quality. But, Crosby's point was that if you consider the true cost of poor quality (e.g., rework, scrap, waste, unhappy customers, etc.), the benefit of improving quality always exceeds the cost. Crosby wrote eloquently on the topic. He did an outstanding job of marketing quality.
Add to these names the likes of Joseph Juran, Walter Shewhart, and the list of quality gurus goes on. In addition to these quality pioneers, there is a long list of quality programs including Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, ISO 9000, Total Quality Management, SAS-70 and so on. The business world is full of quality experts and quality programs. But, for most small to midsize businesses an extensive quality program utilizing higher-level mathematics is not going to be the solution to their issues. Rather, what is needed is a down to earth, common-sense approach to quality as outlined in the following steps:
Document your processes - For quality to be improved, processes must be consistent across the organization and over time. Things must be done the same way every time. If the organization has reached midsize or larger, this can only be accomplished when processes are well documented.
Identify quality issues - Quality issues must be embraced as opportunities to improve. Care must be taken to never "shoot the messenger." While no company wants to find quality issues, raising the issues rather than sweeping them under the carpet must be viewed as a positive thing. Companies are all too often surprised when they routinely chastise people who raise quality concerns and then find that people hide these issues. Employees who identify quality issues must be rewarded not punished.
Fix the problem for the customer - If a quality issue has affected a customer, the situation must be corrected. Provide a replacement. Credit the bill. Give free services. Do whatever is necessary to ensure that the customer is treated more than fairly. A quality problem is not a good thing. But, handled correctly, it can actually become a positive experience for the customer.
Ensure that the problem doesn't reoccur - Having executed the three steps above, too many companies call the issue closed. After all, the customer has been satisfied. The urgent issue is resolved. But, this approach misses the opportunity to prevent future quality problems. It is imperative to ask, "What caused this problem, and what do we need to do to ensure that it never happens again?" Once these questions are answered, the fix can be implemented. While following this course of action sounds simple, it requires a disciplined approach, and getting the nuances right can be critical. But, properly executed, it will put your enterprise on the path to continuous improvement. In the long run, the rewards will be well worth the effort.