The last decade has been an especially active period in the long-running quest for quality in manufacturing. As products get more complex and customer expectations continue to rise, the competitive advantage enjoyed by quality leaders increases apace. Manufacturing companies have responded by embracing the most sophisticated approaches available—developing quality management systems, taking up quality management tools, and implementing standardized quality processes. These efforts have yielded big improvements in sectors ranging from autos to pharmaceuticals to information technology and beyond.
Yet quality problems still appear, sometimes in dramatic fashion. Johnson & Johnson last year agreed to place three plants that manufacture over-the-counter pain and allergy medications under the supervision of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because of quality issues. Toyota, a longtime leader in quality management, announced a global recall of 1.5 million passenger cars in 2010 because of brake and fuel pump problems. Many more companies have experienced lesser setbacks of one kind or another.
Are such events inevitable, even after all the money and effort companies have put into quality management? The answer, happily, is no. Though perfection will doubtless remain out of reach, quality management itself can benefit from continuous improvement, just as products and manufacturing processes can.
In that spirit, The Boston Consulting Group recently collaborated on a major study of best practices in quality management. We learned a number of lessons, but one stands out for being fundamental to success, regardless of industry, region, or company size—and for being as challenging to act on as it is easy to grasp. And that is the primacy of people in quality management. Although the discipline frames its goals in engineering terms, it can only achieve them by getting the human and cultural factors right throughout the organization, from a strong management team that puts quality at the top of the agenda to quality-minded line operators who are constantly trying to optimize processes within their working areas.