He thought he was wrong once, but he was mistaken. Philip Crosby preaches `zero defect' quality control

PHILIP CROSBY doesn't expect to make mistakes - and he doesn't expect anybody else to make them, either. Not one. Not ever.

``The fact of life is that given proper training, given proper information, given proper support - people do not make mistakes,'' says the sandy-haired Mr. Crosby without a trace of a smile.

Gazing intently across a table, Crosby continues: ``When you say `everybody makes mistakes,' it is a preconceived notion and a bigotry akin to racial bigotry.''

Far from being merely a grumpy critic or naive perfectionist, Crosby is an affable gentleman who, as one of America's leading quality evangelists, spreads his doctrine of ``zero defects'' to businesses around the world.

The key is expectancy. Crosby acknowledges that mistakes do occur in life. And though he has made some himself, he refuses to expect them from others, or accept them as his personal standard.

For years, few (except the Japanese) would take him seriously. But 20 years after he first introduced the zero-defect concept, the idea of ``doing it right the first time'' appears to be gaining acceptance as a legitimate standard among businesses.

``There was a time when I was the only one that believed it,'' Crosby says. ``When I first started talking about zero defects, people were tolerant, but it was like talking about life on the moon.''

Crosby isn't alone anymore. Indeed, making high-quality products that perform exactly as advertised is perhaps the central issue for business through the end of the century. In a world market, the companies that win customers will be the ones with the highest quality: the cars that don't break down; the software that is bug-free; the bridge that is engineered to hold up under the toughest stress.

The Japanese Management Association recently celebrated 20 years of the zero-defect standard in Japan. And while few people fault Japanese quality now, the ``American made'' label has suffered.

But this may be changing. Productivity, competitiveness, and quality are buzzwords in American business today. Books on these subjects have been perennially popular. Crosby's 14-step program to help management follow his ideas - ``Quality without Tears/The Art of Hassle-Free Management'' - has been a best seller, like his first book, ``Quality is Free.'' A new Crosby book, ``Running Things,'' is also selling well.

Meanwhile, more than 50,000 executives have flocked to Crosby's Winter Park, Fla., Quality College over the past few years. Many are skeptical, but all are eager to discover what it is behind Crosby's radical ideas about quality.

Crosby's thesis is that if you do things right the first time, you save money by not having to fix broken products or restore customer confidence. Managers at all levels must set clear, achievable requirements, he says. Employees should be educated that meeting those requirements is the only acceptable practice.

``We're not talking about quality control,'' Crosby says. ``We define quality as conformance to the requirements, which is very specific. Other [quality experts] do not do that. They don't think you can get zero defects.''

Using Crosby's zero-defect concept, Mattel Inc., the giant toymaker, improved quality and saved $7.5 million over two years. And General Motors, which has struggled with quality, put its top managers through a Crosby course three years ago. It had the ``cumulative effect,'' says one GM manager, ``of making a higher-quality car right from the start.''

Mostek, a Texas-based computer chip maker, used Crosby's ``Do It Right the First Time'' prevention system several years ago and saved $40 million, while churning out even better-quality chips than before. ``It was dramatic,'' said Robert Donnelly, then quality director. ``Changes occurred almost overnight.''

Crosby emphasizes that his system doesn't mean merely exhorting workers to work harder or better. It begins with a top-management mandate that filters through accounting, payroll, design, purchasing - rethinking every facet of the business operation. ``Everybody talks about the workers on the factory floor as being the big problem,'' Crosby says. ``The workers are just doing what management wants them to do.''

Now Crosby's philosophy is catching on overseas. In Britain last year, Crosby shocked his hosts by saying that despite its long-sluggish economy, the United Kingdom could be ``the next Japan.'' That message, though laughed at by some, has not fallen entirely on deaf ears. Crosby's eight-year-old consulting firm, Philip Crosby Associates, has opened offices in Singapore; Brussels; Paris; Munich, West Germany; London; and Florence, Italy, and is setting up shop in Australia. Overseas sales brought PCA $12 million of its $44.7 million in sales last year.

After his book ``Quality is Free'' became a success in 1979 (more than 1.5 million have been sold), Crosby left his $200,000-a-year job as quality director at International Telephone & Telegraph to found PCA. The company's sales this year are expected to top $50 million.

Despite his acknowledged place as one of the world's top four quality experts, Crosby has been something of a loner in his profession - shunned by other ``quality gurus.'' W.Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran, both of whom taught statistical quality control methods to the Japanese, disdain Crosby's approach. His philosophy and methods have been decried as shallow and unsound.

Still, Crosby is clearly the biggest financial success of them all, garnering $1,800 for a 4-day Quality College course and $12,500 for a one-hour talk.

``The reason Phil Crosby is so popular,'' says Prof. David Garvin of Harvard Business School, ``is that he has taken what has historically been an arcane, specialized, narrowly focused technical subject and distilled it into a few principles that top managers understand.''

The roster of companies that pay dearly to hear Crosby talk or send managers to the Quality College constitute a Who's Who list of profitable companies. From IBM Corporation to General Motors to Xerox, some 200 of the nation's 500 largest companies have hired Crosby to train their managers.

``I don't think there's any question Phil Crosby is one of the top three or four voices on this subject,'' says Dana M. Cound, president of the American Society for Quality Control. Though he's not a fan of Crosby's methods, Mr. Cound says: ``I think he is definitely a mind-bender, and has had an impact on the way managers and executives think about quality.''

Crosby himself doesn't claim to be a ``mind-bender'' and says his doctrines are not, as some critics claim, mere ``motivational'' techniques exhorting workers to fever-pitch performance. He also doesn't say producing defect-free products is an easy thing to do.

``What I've learned over the years is that all of the things you traditionally do to achieve quality don't make much difference,'' Crosby says. ``In the 21st century quality is not going to be nicey-pooh, added thing - it's going to be the price of admission. It has to be there.''

Crosby tells corporate chieftains that their employees, ``unless they are conditioned to make errors, will not make them.'' Management encourages defective products, he says, by setting ``acceptable levels'' for defects in products.

Of his critics, Crosby says little, except that ``everybody assumes you're supposed to make errors - and it becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy. Then they prove their case through statistics and the laws of probability.

``We're talking about changing the culture of the company,'' Crosby repeats. ``It's a whole different level.''

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