America’s Quality Comeback

Since I entered the business world, quality has always been a hot topic.

One of the more poignant historical milestones regarding quality was when US business leaders admitted that Japan was surpassing America in the quality of its automobiles, and eventually its electronics.

How could this be?  We thought American products were the best, because the people who made them were skilled Americans of strong character.  Or something like that.

But Americans bought Japanese cars, and we gradually realized that we didn’t own quality.  We were being beaten by companies who followed better disciplines.  Indeed, there was some comfort in knowing that W. Edwards Deming, an American, was instrumental in promulgating these disciplines among Japanese business, helping the nation rise from defeat in World War II to become a mighty economic power.  Still, it was humiliating—not to mention costly—to be so late to the party.

So, we began to learn those disciplines and put them into practice ourselves.  Total Quality Management, Lean Manufacturing, ISO 9000, Kaizen, and more—we’ve adopted these philosophies, disciplines, and standards, because effective competition has required it.

Manufacturing led the way, but service businesses learned their lessons as well, adapting the same approaches.  Everyone learned that quality decisions should be made based on data, and we discovered that analyzing the feedback of customers provides indispensable data.

Meanwhile, the advance of technology made it easier and more efficient to gather customer feedback, even in real time, making immediate operational response possible.

We’re now at a place where there’s always an explanation but really no excuse for poor quality or customer dissatisfaction.  When it happens, the bar is simply not being set high enough.  Think about what six sigma means: Six standard deviations of quality, 3.4 defects per million opportunities—incredibly close to perfection.

I’m not saying that everyone has arrived there.  It’s a constant struggle.  But we’re in the fight, to be sure.

Today, quality is less sensationalized from the media.  But that’s because it’s now deeply rooted in the culture of business.  It’s no longer news.

That’s a huge comeback for America.  If you’re proud to be part of it, I think that’s just fine.

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