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Elements of Quality

David Chaudron, PhD No one has to tell you about how important quality is to your company; You see the results of it, or the lack of it, every time you have a satisfied customer, or when your competitors market share increases. Unfortunately, though the concept is the rage these days, is hard to define.

We'll use a minimum of jargon, and try to meld the various viewpoints of gurus and philosophies into a clearer whole.

Among the elements of Six Sigma are:

Focus on Quality and Prevention of Problems

Many definitions of quality exist. For this article, we define quality as consistently producing what the customer wants while reducing errors before and after delivery to the customer. More importantly, however, quality is not so much an outcome as a never ending process of continually improving the quality of what your company produces.

Six Sigma emphasizes detecting potential problems before they occur. Failure to prevent defects has several consequences:
1. the need to inspect other people's finished work, rather than relying on the worker's own motivation and skill. This inspection requires extra people and resources;
2. if another employee (a supervisor or perhaps a "checker") finds errors, someone must fix the error, causing extra time and workload, or scrap it with all the accompanying waste;
3. if customers find the errors, this can cause dissatisfaction, loss of customer confidence, and perhaps loss of customers themselves.

Not only should employees inspect products or services while they are making or performing them; to be successful in preventing defects, companies must design in quality before they provide a product or service. During the design phase of product or service development, input from customers, marketing, and those and assemble or produce the final product is vital.

Cooperate with your Suppliers and Customers

Another element of Six Sigma emphasizes cooperating with suppliers of products and services to the organization, and a focus on customer satisfaction.

Many organizations treat suppliers with indifference, and often with hostility. Instead of having many potential suppliers, each competing to give the organization the cheapest price, Six Sigma emphasizes a different relationship. In an organization that implements Six Sigma, vendors are treated as business partners, with all parties working to deliver a quality product. Companies choose suppliers based on consistently delivering a quality product or service. This means that for an organization to succeed, its suppliers must implement Six Sigma as well. A key philosophy in dealing with customers is that it is they who define what quality is.

In organizations implementing Six Sigma, customers and suppliers include relations inside the organization. Manufacturing can be considered the customer of Engineering; Patients can be the customers of doctors. The "products" departments produce for other departments must satisfy the quality requirements of their internal customers.

Continuously Improve and Eliminate Wasteful steps.

Quality is a moving target as well. Cars that consumers believed reliable in the past are now of average quality. What is now a rare feature produced only by you will soon become commonplace and expected. To meet dynamic customer needs, the organization itself must be dynamic.

The social consequences of this would appear to be minor. One caution exists, however, in eliminating wasteful steps: It can mean the elimination of positions or whole classes of work. Employees may receive this and actively resist against such moves.

Encourage the Proper Climate, Empower Employees

For continuous improvement to work, management must empower employees, so they are willing to innovate and act in an atmosphere of trust and respect. All of the other components can be in place, and Six Sigma still fail. Employees motivated to improve service to their customers with the climate allowing them to do so is a potent combination.

Use the problem solving/problem prevention cycle

This cycle, describes the steps that Six Sigma problem solving/prevention groups use. It's major elements are 1) the gathering of information and its analysis before actions are taken; the use of brainstorming (creating possible solutions) before evaluating ideas generated; and 3) evaluation of success. This cycle, using different terminology, is also called the Deming cycle, where its components are PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, and Act). This cycle can be used in:

cross-functional teams, to clarify and refine processes that cross organizational boundaries;

design teams, to create or change organization-wide systems;

intact family work groups working to improve their day-to-day operations; and

newly formed and intact work groups to improve their interpersonal functioning.

Use Measurements to Back Decisions

As we said before, the key to success is to deliver consistently services your customer's need. To find out whether we are successful, we ask our customers how well we are doing. In Six Sigma, this data can be graphed. With this data, trained employees (including management) can use it:

1. to spot trends, and correct these trends before problems are caused;
2. as part of problem solving, to find out why the problem occurred, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. These graphs are the tools of Statistical Process Control (SPC); and
3. in product design. The use of experiments at this stage of product development can identify key characteristics that can affect and optimize product or service development. These products may be specific services useful to a customer, or manufactured equipment or materials.

When an organization uses statistics to make decisions, they can avoid making knee-jerk reactions to small, random changes in outcome. Statistics allow the decision-maker to tell the difference between chance occurrences and systematic factors that significantly affect product or service quality.

If your reaction to this article has been, "Wait a minute. All of these concepts are just good business sense!" you are right.