Quality Control, Democracy, and the Global Market place




Mark Fennell


Quality is very important in American companies today, as it is in any successful company world wide. There are many aspects to the quality concept. The clearest way to understand quality, especially in today's global, interdependent community, is to compare quality to democracy.

First we notice that quality is not a specific concept. Unlike engineering terms, the terms quality and democracy have always meant different things to different people. In the area of democracy, we will recall Presidents Adams and Jefferson had very different views of democracies, yet both led the country well. Similarly, two CEO's may have different views of quality, yet both men can improve quality equally well.

Second, we see the terms quality and democracy are not concrete. They change over time, and change through the intermixing of cultures. In democracy, the ancient Greeks thought of it, then the United States expanded it. As people from other parts of the world came to the U.S., these people added their own ideas of what democracy means. Similarly, the Americans were the ones who began the concept of quality, and later taught the Japanese. The Japanese expanded the concept of quality, ultimately forcing American companies to do the same.

Within that second analogy, there are several things to notice. First, that which made you a leader in quality yesterday might not be enough today. Second, we should be watching for advances, regardless which aspect of the business or which country these changes come from. Third, countries are more interdependent than ever.

Let us look more closely at this interdependence. Products from nearly every country are sold in nearly every other country. For example, it used to be that few people could buy foreign cars. Today Japanese and Korean cars are the most popular. Today, foreign products compete on the same level as domestic products. This means that the company who has better quality will sell more products, and thus the other companies must follow in order to compete.

Let us now examine some specific views of quality which these foreign companies helped advance. Quality used to be spot checking. It has evolved into an integrated system where quality is a concern everyday and in every step. Furthermore, today quality is generally considered to be proactive rather than reactive. Quality is also an ongoing goal to improve the product's performance and the efficiency of manufacturing. These views are far beyond spot checking, and it took many years for some American companies to accept these ideas. There are, of course, many different specific views on quality. However, the concepts of quality mentioned above are the broader views that most companies worldwide agree upon, and which the wise American company will adhere to if it wants to be successful today.

Returning to our analogy of quality and democracy, we see other traits of this global community. Quality extends to employee satisfaction and public perception. In the area of democracy, while other countries are setting up their democracy, the U.S. too often tells them they are doing it wrong. These Americans are oblivious to the concept of other cultures and other ways of doing things. We have seen a similar phenomenon in foreign plants; the American companies tried to create a little America. However, in today's interdependent world, many foreign companies have plants in other countries. The successful parent company, regardless which nation they're from or which nation the plant is in, is the company that is culturally sensitive.

A good example of this is the Japanese with Siam Cement of Thailand. This Thai company had offers from investors from many nations, including the U.S., but found only the Japanese investors were willing to let the Thai people run the business in Thai fashion. Another good example, and one of the few American good examples, is Johnston and Johnston. They have plants and sell their products in many countries, and often the people of these countries think Johnston and Johnston originated in their own country. Quality and public perception also extend to the environment. Thinking about environmental hazards of the product and in the manufacturing process should be an integral part of the business. Siemens is a good example of a company doing just that. One item they manufacture is a fuel injector, which helps fuel efficiency. Furthermore, they are committed to improving the quality of the product so that fuel efficiency is ever increased and pollution decreased.

This brings us to our final point in the democracy and quality analogy. Like democracy, quality is ultimately what the people want. A good legislator will listen to his constituents and bring changes to the government. A good quality control engineer will listen to the consumers and improve the product accordingly. As the Japanese companies say, "The customer is always right."