Vol. 11, No. 7
July 2009
PQ Systems
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Opportunity for quality?

A longstanding myth that the Chinese characters for "opportunity" and "crisis" are the same may not be entirely true (wei ji literally means "precarious moment," and "opportunity" is ji huay, according to www.straightdope.com). Nonetheless, the connection that people tend to make between the two concepts has become a cliché of modern business, and probably for good reason.

Certainly, crisis has emerged as a given in the past year or so. Having to do more with less is a fact of life for organizations. Cutting work forces, delaying purchasing decisions, eliminating or reducing training, and other approaches to saving money in hard times are common among companies of all sizes. Unemployment rates are approaching 10 percent; business travel has been reduced; conference attendance has diminished. Families, companies, schools, and governmental agencies are looking for ways to cut spending and make do with what they have.

Cutting quality initiatives, of course, seems as if it would be a logical consequence of these efforts.

Certainly, it is true for many companies. A survey released by the American Society for Quality (ASQ) in December 2008 reflected different approaches to economic survival among companies surveyed. Asked whether their companies were paying more or less attention to a number of areas, cost cutting seemed to garner the greatest attention, and considering growth through acquisitions or products or companies was receiving the least attention in these companies.

Interestingly enough, quality seems to be generating "no change" in terms of responding to economic effort. That is, companies have continued operating quality programs where they are already in place, but perhaps not initiating them if they are not. The survey also showed that some companies are "redoubling certain quality efforts, placing stronger emphasis on preventive actions, and increasing commitment to continuous improvement." http://www.asq.org/quality-report/reports/quarterly-quality-report-200901.pdf . Clearly, these organizations recognize the competitive edge that producing quality services and products gives them, and are committed to embracing their efforts to sustain this edge.

Companies that are known for quality products and services realize that such a reputation is not easily acquired, and should not be abandoned. Apple founder Steve Jobs has pointed out that Apple Computer’s "core genius" is its ability to make "high-quality, well-designed products that are sexy, perform well and are innovative." Slipping from that competency in the interest of perceived efficiency or cost-cutting might mean never regaining Apple’s reputation for quality.


Some steps that companies are taking to assure quality include:

  • collecting data on processes
  • analyzing data to assure stability in those processes
  • trying out improvement efforts on a small scale before standardizing them
  • providing ongoing training in quality methods to employees
  • investing in software to assure accurate calibration records
  • using document control programs for consistency in processes
  • approaching standards such as ISO 9000 as opportunities for genuine improvement
  • utilizing non-traditional resources for employee learning (such as web-based training, weekend sessions, etc.)

Diminishing profits and increased layoffs may inspire abandonment of quality efforts, but companies with long-term vision are understanding what it means to keep customers with high-quality service, rather than abandoning them in the interest of thrift. Conventional wisdom asserts that it costs five times as much to bring in a new customer as to keep an existing one. And winning back customers who have felt a lack of attention to their needs may be even more challenging.

One Swedish company, after cancelling a third shift and decreasing the number of work weeks from four in a month to three, feels that this is "the perfect time to learn about SPC" and thereby improve the quality of its products. For many organizations, fewer customers may mean more time to focus on long-term gains in improvement. In a way, it’s like taking advantage of slow times to organize files or clean out your desk. And with the wonders of modern technology, it’s possible to advance your training and professional development from that very desk. Web-based training, "webinars," and online programs can build understanding of quality processes without the expense of travel, as the Swedish company found. The company is using PQ Systems’ computer-based training. Other training options available include regular webinars that provide instruction in SPC as well as specific software products such as CHARTrunner and SQCpack.

Duke Senior in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night’s Dream says, "Sweet are the uses of adversity," a twist on the opportunity/crisis message. Hardship breeds new perspectives, in the same way that recovering from illness gives new appreciation for good health. It may be that the current economic downturn will provide new awareness, and that companies facing hardship will recognize new ways of doing business.


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