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What Is the Quality Team Responsible For? (Part 1) January 2, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Quality.
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A few weeks ago I had coffee with a quality manager who’s now the president of our local chapter of the American Society of Quality. I’ve made a couple of presentations at the chapter meetings, and I’m helping to manage their web site, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before they asked me to take a leadership position. I declined. My short answer is that I’m “just too busy,” but of course that just means that I’m not willing to make time for it. To quote Bob Dylan: “I used to care, but things have changed.” More on that later.

The chapter president and I shared war stories about our experiences in quality management. His stories are a little more recent, but the underlying themes are the same, and I suspect quality managers one hundred years from now will be experiencing similar frustrations and telling similar stories. Everybody has stories, but I think the unique issues that quality managers face come down to a few fundamental questions:

  • What level of quality is necessary for this business? Or, to say it a different way, what level of quality is senior leadership willing to commit to?
  • Who (what function) is responsible for ensuring good quality? Who is responsible for addressing poor quality?
  • Does the business look for someone to blame, or do they look for underlying causes?
  • Who is responsible for leading quality improvements? Are those improvement plans supported and given sufficient resources?
  • If “everyone is responsible for quality,” then what is the quality department responsible for?

All of the companies I’ve worked for operated (at the time) as if the quality department alone was responsible for quality, specifically poor quality. If an influential customer complained about quality, if there was a field failure, if someone didn’t execute a business process correctly, then it was the fault of the quality department. Nobody really cared about quality otherwise. If we stopped production due to a quality issue we were pressured to start it up again before our investigation was completed and the root cause eliminated. I can’t recall a single new product introduction that was delayed due to a quality risk, but I can recall quality people getting fired when warranty costs were too high. Morale was always low, despite my best efforts, and I’m a really good manager.

If you’ve read this far, you know how this is supposed to work. Quality is everyone’s job, not just the quality department. If quality falls short, you have to keep asking “why” until you find the true root cause, which is more often than not a cultural problem. Businesses accept lower levels of quality because they give higher priority to expense control and time-to-market. That’s not necessarily the wrong decision. It depends on the market’s expectations and what the competition is doing. What I’m saying is that in this environment defects and field failures and customer complaints are inevitable, and it’s wrong to blame the quality department.

I’m not saying that the quality department doesn’t have any responsibility for quality. Quality professionals should be held responsible for the design of a quality system that’s used throughout the business, and the implementation of that system after it’s been approved by senior management. The proper execution of that system is everyone’s responsibility. Stay tuned for more on this topic.

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