Why do quality systems fail? Five factors that contribute to likely recalls

Barb ClearyWhen giant companies known for the quality of their products and services find themselves suddenly in the news with massive recall efforts—think Volkswagen, Toyota, John Deere, Craftsman, Chipotle, and others—the question arises: “What went wrong?”

Before jumping to the conclusion that quality systems really don’t work (so why bother?), one must look to some of the reasons that established improvement efforts may fail.

  1. A pattern of producing only good products over time can create a sloppy approach to assuring quality. Quality efforts are often sustained only under the pressure of problems. These may include excessive waste and cost, which demand some kind of action to reduce defects. When things are going well, this pressure may be felt less keenly.
  2. Failure to understand variation in processes can lead to a failure to address out-of-control situations. If spec limits have been substituted for control limits, for example, process stability cannot be assured.
  3. Complacency with respect to training assures limited knowledge of process control. If appropriate training in process management is not offered to all employees, the skills that assure vigilance in monitoring processes will not be sustained. W. Edwards Deming pointed to the sham of “worker training worker,” where information is passed on informally rather than in consistently professional training.
  4. Management changes can affect quality. A commitment to high quality products and services must be sustained through all levels of the organization. If new leadership fails to assume the commitment to quality, this failure will ripple through the organization.
  5. A focus only on profits and earning reports without regard to customer satisfaction can be a death knell for quality. Cutting corners by accepting suppliers with the lowest cost rather than proof of quality will affect the final outcome. Eliminating training to save costs will have the same effect.

Once defective products have been identified by customers or consumer safety groups, an organization’s reputation for quality is sullied in ways that may be challenging to overcome. In the wake of the problems that have dogged Volkswagen in recent weeks, for example, blogs are asking, “Can VW survive?” No organization wants to hear this question.

Sustaining a reputation for quality demands constant vigilance, to be sure. Understanding process behavior requires appropriate training and commitment. And while problems may ensue in any process, reducing the odds of failure is an important task of everyone in an organization, from top to bottom.

3 thoughts on “Why do quality systems fail? Five factors that contribute to likely recalls

  1. Dr. Deming said repeatedly: “There is no substitute for knowledge.” As you demonstrate, the quality system is critically hampered when the executive management is lacking basic knowledge (let alone profound knowledge) of the physics of variation in production.

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