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The Zero Defects Quest July 1, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Product design, Quality.
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A few years ago I had a conversation with some of the engineers in a quality team I managed. The engineers were struggling to understand the business’s stated goal of “zero defects,” puzzled over what it would take to get there and worried about the consequences of falling short. They wanted the goal changed to something less demanding that could be realistically achieved, or some acknowledgement by senior management that “zero defects” was nothing more than a slogan to inspire employees, customers, and shareholders.

I was sympathetic. I understood that it was probably impossible to achieve zero defects given the complexity of the design and the influence of many inputs and processes that were difficult to control. I believe in the concept of good-enough quality, which weighs the level of quality and reliability of the organization’s output against the cost required to achieve it. Beyond the level of quality required or expected by the customer, I believe there’s an asymptotic relationship between defects and cost, and working to further reduce the number of defects will require ever-increasing expenses that are unlikely to be recovered through higher prices or larger market share.

I was, however, concerned about the slippery slope and what would happen if we became accustomed to a lower level of quality as an acceptable deliverable. I wanted to create a culture where people were dissatisfied with any defect, regardless of whether it was economically feasible to address all defects. I wanted to change the goal from “zero defects” to “all defects analyzed, root cause determined, prevention strategies proposed, and resolution (or not ) openly agreed to.” It wasn’t an inspiring slogan that fit on a poster, but when people realized that every defect would require discussion as an opportunity for improved quality, quality started to improve without a significant increase in cost. I don’t think we would have gotten there with an unrealistic goal that was cynically ignored.

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