Quality is a Function of Attention to Detail

How do you drive quality in an organization?

If you believe in the old business adage that a fish stinks from the head down, then you know where it has to start. It starts with your vision, your philosophy, and your commitment to quality. It requires that you make it a priority and then drive that idea home via your management style and decisions.

Instill the idea that quality starts and ends with each individual: Tell them, “Quality begins and ends with you.

“It’s up to you to produce quality, as well as make sure the person behind you is doing it. You can’t depend on the next person to catch it, but you have to take that responsibility for it yourself. If not, the entire process goes haywire and nothing works the way it should.”

Snap Inspections and Public Executions

A worker inspecting a ship's anchor chain. Quality starts in the smallest details, and is found everywhere.The way I drove quality in any of the organizations I ran was to be totally uncompromising and making surprise visits and inspections. I stressed over and over the importance of quality and zero defects in our products. We built the processes to eliminate defects just so we weren’t giving lip service to the same empty promises so many other companies make.

I would turn up any time of the day or night and do a snap inspection of the associates, their stations, and their output. This included surprise third-shift visits.

That way, people made sure to follow our quality philosophy at all times, not just at the times they thought I was going to be around.

There were a couple of occasions where I had to have a few “public executions” where people were actually compromising what they were doing, which not only affected the product quality but in some cases, violated our safety rules.

This drove the union crazy, of course.

I remember one occasion where I actually fired four people on the spot. I did it because they were threading pipes incorrectly. When you’re cutting the thread on a piece of pipe, the pitch has got to be absolutely correct, and you have to have enough tolerance in the cut to allow for things like varnish and paint. That way, when it goes into a coupling, you’ve got just the right clearance to get a good seal.

Threading the pipe properly required a ring gauge to ensure it was being cut just right. Without it, the coupling won’t create a good seal, the connections will leak, and the customers will demand (and get) costly replacements. Plus, we could have been sued if their losses were large enough. Bottom line: If you didn’t check the threads with the ring gauge, we could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars over a couple of defective orders.

These people were not testing the thread with the ring gauge, because they thought it was too much trouble. They’re right there in the plant, the ring gauge is within arm’s reach, and they thought it was too much trouble? Go back and read the previous paragraph about replacements and lawsuits. Which is more trouble?

I had gone in for a spot inspection, saw they weren’t using the gauge, and that was it. I fired all four people immediately.

Needless to say, the union was upset that I didn’t go through a progressive disciplinary process. It was contractual that we would do that, but I refused. I said I didn’t want anyone in the facility who would put their and everyone else’s livelihood at risk.

When I met with the union rep, I said, “Are you telling me that the union’s position is that they’re not committed to quality?”

They weren’t able to argue that point, so they let it go. It would have been a very difficult thing for them to argue, just like arguing against firing someone for a safety violation. We didn’t follow progressive discipline on that front either.

Here’s another example where I refused to compromise on quality.

One of our process lines had 17 people working on it. After a product was completed, 17 people in a row had touched it, each adding a new step on top of the one behind it. It just so happened that the range of products they were building was, in a word, terrible.

That is, they were passable in terms of specs, but they weren’t the standard we had set. It would have satisfied form, fit, and function, but the product itself just looked like the last Thanksgiving turkey that no one wanted.

Whoever had performed the first step badly was the start of the problem. But the bigger issue came from the next person. The second person didn’t catch that the first person had done their step badly and sent it back — they let the part through to the third person.

The third person assumed that if the second person had let the part through, then they should, too, and they completed their step. The fourth person saw it, made the same assumption, did their step, and passed it on.

By the time the product had gotten to the 17th person, they assumed that because none of the 16 other people had said anything, it must be good.

But terrible is terrible, no matter how many hands it goes through.

All it required was one person to stand up and say, “This is not good. This is not the level of quality we’re capable of.” Ideally, it would have been the first person on the line to realize they had made a poor product, but it also fell to the second person to speak up when they saw that the first person had fallen down on their job. Then the third person for the second person. And so on and so on.

In the end, we gave all 17 people a final written warning because none of them could be bothered to speak up about a simple quality check on the preceding step. As a result, we paid 17 people 17 salaries to take 17 steps to create a product we had to reject. We had to reject all those parts and remake them without recouping any of our lost costs for their laziness.

When the union filed a grievance for each of the written warnings, our response again was, “Are you saying the union is opposed to the pursuit of quality?”

They said no, but that we should have followed their procedure, so they asked for arbitration for the written warnings. Then they asked us if we would like to argue all 17 grievances at one hearing or do them one at a time.

We said we preferred to do them one at a time, which would have cost the union roughly $5,000 per arbitration hearing, or $85,000. (It didn’t appear that the arbitrator offered a volume discount.)

The union dropped the arbitration requests and the final written warnings stood. Because we had to show that quality was the primary driver for everything we did and wasn’t just empty lip service we spouted to make ourselves feel good.

Hire for Quality in the First Place

We also decided that if we wanted to get quality out of our associates, we had to hire quality-conscious people in the first place.

During our hiring process, we would put people through a battery of tests. We would measure their attention to detail, their potential retentive skills, and so on. I had a rule that if anyone was not all in the greens on the tests, we would not consider them.

The idea is that if you recognized quality, had a reasonable modicum of intelligence, and knew how to follow basic processes and procedures, you could produce quality parts. We only had to provide the training and the associates would bring their commitment to quality. But if they couldn’t do their best on the standardized tests, or couldn’t follow basic instructions, they would not suddenly develop a quality attitude when they were getting paid for it. So we didn’t hire people who couldn’t meet those standards. As a result, we were able to create an environment of high-quality production with our associates and staff.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including pivoting within their industry. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: David Mark (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.