We have all heard the expression, “Quality is everyone’s job.” That is a bit like saying everyone is responsible for raising the children. If mom or dad, or uncles, aunts older siblings or grandparents disagrees as to what the standards of behavior ought to be, the children will, in all likelihood establish their own. The result can be chaos, with maybe a child or two winding up in trouble with those outside the family, like the school or even the police. One or more of the parents must establish the standards and everyone must agree to those standards.
If we think about quality in this same way, the result multiple standards may be that quality is no one’s job.

Think about how many time you may have driven down the street, or walked along a path in the park. Out there on the grass is some litter. We all want to live in a clean environment, yet we pass that trash because we convince ourselves that “someone else” will pick it up. I live in a semi-rural area and not a day goes by without some passing motorist throwing some bit of trash on my front lawn: cigarette wrappers, beer cases, soda cans, etc.

If everyone agrees that they want a pristine environment, why would some of those people toss trash out of a car window? Quality standards are like that—someone must establish rules and ensure that others abide by them.

The boss, however, cannot afford to think that anything be left to others to decide what is acceptable. The customer, in most cases, establishes standards of their own. When management accepts an order, they must feel obliged to conform to those standards. When the producer company has lower standards than the customer, the customer will take their business elsewhere. Quality cannot be someone else’s responsibility, least of all quality of the product or service the business offered to their customers. It is quite simple: someone has to be responsible, or there is no way to assure that the customer gets what he/she is asking for.

Understand that when I mention quality, I am not talking about goodness; that is another issue entirely. While the goodness standard also flows from the boss, it is not the subject of this column. I am not writing about whether a product or service that meets one of the definitions for quality as put forth by the American Society for Quality (ASQ): free of defects, or zero defects, or a product or service free of deficiencies.

Think for a moment about the best restaurant you may have ever visited, and think about a “greasy spoon” at the other end of the spectrum. In both cases, the employees provide the food and services that is acceptable to the boss. You would not go to Longman & Eagle in Chicago, Bennan’s in New Orleans or Uchiko in Austin, Texas, and accept the same food or service that you might accept from a street vendor on the Boardwalk in Atlanta. You would expect and receive something much better.

These famous restaurants offer not only food and service well above that of the street vendor they also maintain a sense of decorum, or panache that the street vendor could never hope to emulate. The chefs’ and managers set the style and demand that the staff maintain it without exception.

The fact is that company leaders set the standard for quality for their subordinates regardless of what the business is. The workforce and staff spend a lot of time, thought, and energy trying to discern what will please (or displease) their leaders. If we know anything about the boss, we have a very good idea of what he or she will tolerate. It is fundamental. The product or service reflects company management. If you are the leader—the boss—and the product have problems, it is your fault.

There are bosses, under-bosses, and under-under-bosses in the management chain. Everybody has a boss, even the CEO. The CEO reports to the board of directors, which reports to the stockholders. The CEO probably has several direct subordinates who march to his or her beat. Meanwhile, John down in the machine shop, probably knows that there is a CEO and may even know his or her name. However, John’s salary, working hours, and other benefits come from Daniel—John’s supervisor. John does not see the CEO as his leader. Daniel is the only leader that John thinks about and tries to please. Although the CEO may share the responsibility for quality with Daniel and John, the CEO’s portion does not get any smaller. Actually, even though Daniel shares the responsibility with John, Daniel’s portion does not get smaller either.

Responsibility is a unique concept that can only reside within the individual. President Harry Truman said it in simple terms: “The buck stops here.” You may think you have delegated it, but it is still with you. You may share it with others but your portion is in no way diminished. Some managers many deny it, but they cannot divest themselves of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it. As the boss, the responsibility is rightfully yours—no evasion or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else.

That is a powerful thought. All leaders should have that message carved into their desktop. The CEO shares the responsibility for quality with the rest of the leaders in the organization, right on down to John’s boss. Joe, of course, is responsible for doing his job right using the process that was give to him. If the process, or John, is incapable of meeting the requirement, Tom is responsible for correcting the situation, or going back to those who designed and approved the process to make it better. If Daniel does not do his job right, and a defective product gets out, he and the CEO must share the responsibility.

Unfortunately, many members of management (at all levels) do not seem to understand their responsibly for quality. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard a plant manager blame “those people,” meaning the workers, for rotten quality. That type of manager does not understand how quality happens, does not understand that he or she is responsible for quality. This type of manager screams, “How the hell did that get out?” when the customer complains.

If a team of people produces something, whose fault is it if the quality is poor? After all, a tester’s job is, ostensibly, to find defects in a product. A poor quality product must be the result of the testers not doing well enough, right? Tests, or inspector, teams are also called “Quality Assurance” teams. Think about that. Is there anything that the inspectors or testers produce which results in making the quality low? The obvious answer is nothing. Every other individual involved in the project is responsible for the quality, including designers, developers, testers and managers. By discovering a defect, a tester is merely highlighting a risk, saying that a problem exists. This is exactly what these people are supposed to be doing.

If the process is not at fault, and defective pieces are produced, is it the fault of the inspector that finds them, or is it the fault of the manufacturing people who produce the defective parts? The worst attitude a manufacturer can have is one that says, ‘That is good enough.” The inspector’s job to present the risk, rather than to be the judge of how much risk is acceptable.

I once turned down a very promising, and lucrative, position when I found thousands of products in the warehouse with red tags, an indication of non-conformance. There were several engineers going through the shipping containers and signing off on the red tags. One of the engineers told me that, this was the only way to meet their shipping quota. In all likelihood, they knew their customer would reject the parts but there was a slim chance they would not. I believe that this company was looking for a scapegoat, someone to blame for poor quality, not a quality director.

I think that one implication of this is that testers need to document all the defects they find. Only keeping a record the “serious” non-conforming product do they point out the magnitude of production’s problems. They are not only presenting the risk, but making a decision about what they perceive the risk to be. Another important implication is that it’s not the tester’s fault when everything breaks six months down the line–it was always broken. True, more testing might have found more defects, but eventually management decides to ship the product as is or not. Shipping sub-standard product is always a calculated risk.

Leslie W. Flott, Ph.B., CQE, ASQ Fellow, is certified as an IDEM Wastewater Treatment Operator and Indiana Wastewater Treatment Operator. He received his BS in Chemistry from Northwestern University and his Masters Degree in materials engineering from Notre Dame University. Most recently, Flott served as the environmental program director and instructor at Ivy Tech Community College. Prior to that, he was the health, environment, and safety manager at Wayne Metal Protection Company.