It’s somewhat odd to have a separate section on quality. The reader may have perceived that quality, good and bad, runs through every part of every organization. It does. Quality is a complex subject to talk about. The main character in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values goes certifiably insane when asked the simple question: what is quality?
So what is quality? The Merriam-Webster definition defines quality as: degree of excellence. That sounds good, but doesn’t really help in a business setting. Quality is most often defined in business as: conformance to requirements or conformance to specifications. If we think of the MRS – marketing requirements specification – document from the innovation section; we can view the quality of a product as how well it meets its defined specifications. Quality is meeting specifications. That sounds right. But wait. Isn’t there more?
Isn’t quality that ethereal thing people feel when they swing their leg over the seat of a Harley Davidson motorcycle, start it up, and hear its distinctive roar? Isn’t quality the rhythmic pulse of a cyropump on a semiconductor tool precisely depositing monolayers of atoms on a silicon wafer enabling the Information Age? Isn’t quality what you feel seeing a CNC – computer numeric controlled – five axis machine tool turn a metal billet into a precision part? And isn’t quality the thing you experience when you watch a movie streamed in 4K definition in your personal home theater room?
We know that quality is something more than objective conformance to requirements just as someone’s job should be more than quid pro quo utility. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance rightly said you’ve got to merge the subject (you) and the object to get to quality. As I covered in Foundations of Excellence, great teams aren’t based on quid pro quo utility but on association due to the other’s excellence; association that is based on love. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Quality is all about love. I wound up to that sentence after four introductory paragraphs and it still looks corny on the page. But it’s true. When you ride that Harley or appreciate that precision part or are enthralled by the home viewing of the movie of your choice; you are experiencing the love that others put into that product. You are experiencing the reverence for excellence that transcends simple conformance to requirements. I’ve focused on products but quality based on love applies to any human endeavor.
This is so important, I’m going to type it again. Quality is all about love. This is why a person’s job defines their life’s purpose. In suboptimal companies, this is why bean counters focused on short term gain, destroy the family business they purchased. Those in great companies have a reverence for their business. That reverence is why Ayn Rand’s heroine Dagny Taggart, in Atlas Shrugged, stared at a train engine running full tilt and emotionally saw her life’s purpose as she instinctually felt the train engine was a moral code cast in steel.
Deep down we know that quality is all about love and it is a crying shame if businesses pound this out of our experience. Each functional head of the great companies viscerally know what quality is even if they don’t put it in words. The CEO feels quality when the everyone in the plant is aligned on core purpose, welded into great teams, adhering to their timeless values, and looking to the future. In short the CEO knows their company is solving a key problem of humanity and is committed to being the best at doing so. And the CEO knows the company is producing quality products when visiting customers.
The CFO experiences quality when everyone from the top staff to the janitor understands the company’s financials and how bonuses and profit sharing is maximized. The financials show profitability but, more importantly, are simple, communicated, and aligned from top to bottom. The CTO – chief technical officer – and R&D head experience the quality of clean designs, elegant software coding, and timely new product realization. Change control is executed with reverence, discipline, and significant R&D accountability.
The HR head experiences quality in the employee’s Mutual Trust and Respect across functions, the continual enhancement of the character of the organization and its teams, and the burnishing of the company’s culture. The COO experiences quality in a well-run efficient operation delivering to customer commits and able to flex to external changes. Suppliers are partners that know they must deliver quality products and guard that partnership as one would a close friendship. Service is proud and honored to install and maintain their company’s products. And, most important, the customers experience quality in the products they receive, the company’s people they interact with, and the value those products provide.
Quality is all about love. Everyone in the great organization feels that love in why they do what they do. This is why I spent so much time in Foundations of Excellence talking about purpose, inspiration, teams, and values. In the end, what makes great companies and their functions great is the love of the employees for the why of what they do. And, in the end, what makes suboptimal companies and their functions suboptimal is the lack of that love. Often they don’t even know why they do what they do. Quality is paramount because it defines the pursuit of excellence of the why of what we do in business.
Now, one very common thing you’ll see in both the great and suboptimal companies is what’s called ‘talking the talk’. The suboptimal companies talk of quality and values as much the great companies, maybe more so. I don’t think there are many companies that overtly dismiss the idea of quality in what they do. Some of the greatest value lists, mission statements, and bromide inspiration talks come from suboptimal companies. So what’s the difference?
The specifications, operational metrics, and financials are needed objective measures but the real test of quality is what the company’s leadership at all levels does in its moments of truth – in the times when compromise is the easy way out. If you want to put your finger on what most separates the great from the suboptimal companies; compromises at the point of hard decisions is it. This is why I’ve drummed over and again in both Foundations of Excellence and in Functions of Excellence that companies committed to solving one of humanity’s big problems adhere to being the best at achieving their core purpose.
If a company decides to be the best, it will not compromise in the moments of truth. As Beth, Steve, Dan, and Cathy saw; when a company gets to a moment of truth, it defines itself in how it responds. The moments of truth come to every function sometimes as often as every day and, again, the company’s response, which usually involves a quality decision, defines itself.
The suboptimal companies, no matter how flowery their value statements, whiff at the hard decisions. Steve and Cathy saw this in their companies allowing piece part quoting, using low spec hardware, reusing parts as new, designing on the fly, endlessly churning change, and hoping the customer accepts what was shipped.
The great companies make the hard decisions, like sticking with the value sell, going back a step in the PDP to get the product right, integrating all functions in design, and making sure the customer gets all needed in the product. The great companies know there is a short term cost but also know that they can’t compromise on their core. They love what they’re doing too much for that. Again, quality is all about love. Everyone in the great organization feels that love in why they do what they do.