Quality: Catching Up With Japan

Vastly expanded efforts by American business to boost quality has started to show results

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE ``Made in the USA'' label is regaining stature. The quality of American goods and services has been rising. ``It is starting to improve, though maybe taking more time than most managers had expected,'' says David Garvin, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of a recent book, ``Managing Quality: The Strategic and Competitive Edge'' (Free Press, New York). ``The quality gap between Japanese and American products is clearly narrowing.''

That opinion is echoed by other top United States experts on quality, interviewed for this article.

J.M. Juran: ``There is a great deal of improvement. There is nothing in our culture ... which prevents us from being competitive,'' says this dean of quality management and author of the ``Quality Control Handbook,'' a classic on the topic. He finds that the nation's top corporate executives are more aware of the need for better quality and more involved in establishing quality programs and goals. ``We have pretty competent managers in this country. We are pretty good at reaching our goals. I would bet on our managers.''

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Dr. Juran is revered in Japan for his early work there on quality, starting in the 1950s. He has received the Second Class of the Order of the Sacred Treasure, given by the Emperor of Japan - the highest decoration given to a non-Japanese citizen.

Now that his ideas for boosting quality are being adopted in the US, he expects ``more progress'' in the 1990s.

Philip B. Crosby: ``There has been a lot of activity in the last 10 years, and a lot of hard work on quality in the last five years.'' Mr. Crosby left a job as vice president of quality at ITT Corporation in 1979 to found Philip Crosby Associates and with it, Crosby Quality College. He reckons that about half of major American companies are doing better in quality. They are less likely to lose market share to foreign competitors. But the situation varies greatly from industry to industry and from company to company.

Jeffrey B. Miller: ``There has been significant improvement in terms of conformance quality in the last three or four years in American manufacturing,'' says this professor of operations management and founder of the Manufacturing Roundtable at Boston University. In other words, manufactured goods are more likely to consistently conform to the specifications set by the maker. ``American manufacturers have come a long way. Are they good enough? No! Do they have a long way to go in terms of improvement? Yes! Are they competitive elsewhere in the world? Yes! Quality is an issue that is going to be with us forever.''

George H. Labowitz: The emphasis on quality is spreading in the US beyond major companies, says the president of Organizational Dynamics Inc. (ODI), Burlington, Mass. One reason is that corporate customers with quality programs are demanding similar quality measures by suppliers. Further, employees trained to become conscious of quality are demanding more quality as private consumers. As a result, the American consumer is becoming more demanding, less tolerant of poor quality goods and services. ``That is a very positive thing,'' says the head of this consulting firm. Another ODI officer called this consumer interest in quality a ``significant cultural change.''

Quality experts note several important trends:

Management of quality has become an issue for the chief executive officer (CEO). ``Top management is interested as never before,'' says A. Blanton Godfrey, chairman of the Juran Institute. ``Quality is part of the business plan.'' Quality is not just a production problem. Several years ago, companies often assigned quality to quality control professionals of relatively low rank. Quality control jobs were often considered dead-end positions. Many companies did not put their best employees in these quality jobs. No longer, says Mr. Godfrey. Now quality management is seen as an assignment lasting only a few years and a step up the corporate ladder. More CEOs, presidents, senior vice-presidents, and other top executives are showing up at seminars and courses on quality. These people are brighter and more ambitious to make changes in their companies, says Mr. Godfrey.

ODI's Dr. Labowitz says the key variable in improving the quality of a company's output is management, not the workers.

As the reliability and durability of products reaches a high level in some industries, other aspects of quality become more important to consumers. These include qualities that make a product attractive - beauty, serviceability, various features, and so on. For instance, if customers figure practically all television tubes last 10 years without repair, they will pay more attention to picture sharpness. Companies must pay more attention to servicing their customers, speed and reliability of delivery, etc. Perception of quality - and not just quality itself - also becomes important.

``Today quality is seen as a marketing opportunity to be identified and then exploited,'' says Mr. Garvin.

Quality management has spread from manufacturing to service businesses to such fields as medical care (hospitals, health maintenance organizations, and group practises), education, utilities, and government. There is indeed today a ``Federal Quality Management Institute'' for federal civil servants. Duran has told the Department of Defense that the Gramm-Rudman budget cuts would be no threat if the military adopted quality management. Thereby the department would get far more ``defense'' for each dollar spent.

Quality measures have moved beyond a set of techniques and statistical measures to total quality management from the chief executive down. The goal is not only to make things right first, rather than fix them along the way. It is to design quality into the product or service. The design should take into account problems of manufacturing.

Corporations are getting more sophisticated in their market research as to what their customers actually want in a product or service. ``They didn't understand that as well as they thought,'' says Professor Garvin. ``There is less gut feel and more real evidence.'' Customers are asked in detail what qualities, features, services they want and need. The goal, says Garvin, is to take ``the voice of the customer and ratchet it back through design, purchasing, and production.''

Companies are often working closely with suppliers on quality. To facilitate this, many are reducing the number of suppliers. They are considering quality along with price in placing orders. This is leading to a somewhat more cooperative capitalism.

As for the future of quality management, Beeler Gausz, president of the Crosby Quality College comments: ``We have to be very careful to avoid the notion we have arrived. It requires a constant, consistent effort to make this thing work. If we sit back on our laurels, that is when someone will take the market away from us.''

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