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Why Traditional Quality Control is Obsolete (and What to Do About It)

Alex Brown, Editor-in-Chief
May 9, 2019

When it comes to building the best possible product for the lowest possible cost, you need to follow the most effective quality control methods. Yet, many companies in 2019 still march under the banners of Taylor and Ford, forcing outdated quality management tactics onto frontline employees and middle management.

That doesn’t mean they don’t care about quality. However, their short-sighted vision for a product-focused team of quality control inspectors is holding their companies back. It’s often this misguided commitment to keeping quality control isolated and under pressure that turns it into a powder keg. How can you avoid turning quality control into a liability and start innovating for the future?

Let’s start by looking at the three biggest problems in quality management: disconnected QC programs, product-focused standards, and short-term pressures. Then, we'll explain why these issues are making traditional quality control obsolete and discuss what you can do about it.

Disconnected QC Programs

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The Problem:

Quality control is isolated from production employees, managers, and even customers.

This might mean that your quality department is made up of highly qualified experts whose bread and butter are catching issues and minimizing costs to the company. Unfortunately, it also means that an enormous number of your work staff and middle managers—those who spend most of their time intimately engaged with your product—have little say in the quality process.

Tom Peters wrote in a 1994 editorial that internal QC programs which lose their customer focus are often run by “technocrats” who place little to no faith in frontline employees. If the keys to quality are only in the hands of a few quality specialist, you're missing out on the first-hand expertise of your other staff.

Why It’s Making Traditional QC Obsolete:

It’s unrealistic, isolated, and inefficient.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School wrote that traditional, inwardly focused TQM (total quality management) systems in the 1980’s failed because of their isolated nature:

They are mounted as programs, unconnected to business strategy… and expected to bring about miraculous transformations in the short term without management lifting as much as a finger.

In order to drive quality over the long term, you need to ensure everyone in your organization has the same destination in mind. More importantly, you need to give everyone an opportunity to affect the quality process, even if that means taking turns at the wheel.

What You Can Do:

Integrate quality into every process. Make quality decisions available to production workers. Get management, both executive and middle, fully on board.

We’re not suggesting you dissolve your quality department, but providing middle management and work staff with the freedom to handle quality issues on the spot can pay dividends. At Form.com, we've helped many companies find their footing with a new quality management system using mobile forms. Our custom-built forms for mobile devices can quickly communicate and initiate quality control decisions directly from the hands of your frontline workers and managers.

Product-Focused Standards

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The Problem:

Quality control is seen as a safeguard against future problems or expenses—and nothing more.

In this vein of thinking, quality management is essentially a list of boxes to check, and if the product makes the cut, the job is done. This traditional Product-Out concept, as described in New American TQM, yields the results you might expect: your output conforms to a reasonable standard, but the behavior of your workers doesn’t actively incorporate your customers’ needs.

Why It’s Making Traditional QC Obsolete:

It's completely disconnected from customer feedback and market trends.

If the quality standards you’ve set are exactly what your customers want (and they want nothing else), you’ve found the golden ticket. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for most businesses. Even if your customers are relatively happy with your offerings, the Product-Out concept has a detrimental effect on customer feedback. Management might hear a complaint, but due to the focus on internal standards, it won’t make it far. In their minds, it meets the standard, so it must be fine. They imagine the customer is just being difficult and embrace the all-too-common idea that “customers don’t know what they want.”

What You Can Do:

Reshape your quality control behavior to reflect customer needs and concerns.

The writers of New American TQM describe an alternative approach to product-focused quality management: the Market-In method. Unlike Product-Out, Market-In focuses on customer satisfaction rather than orthodox company standards. That doesn’t mean you should bow to every consumer whim or allow your customers to write your new QC rulebook unchecked; however, understanding your market and anticipating trends through the lens of quality can give you a competitive edge. A company that interprets customer feedback as nitpicking rather than opportunities to innovate is one that is destined to fall behind.

Short-Term Pressures

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The Problem:

Quality management is treated as a moment-to-moment affair.

Maybe your quality control goals are solely short-term and focused on keeping costs low. Perhaps the idea of investing time and resources into more substantial quality solutions is completely foreign because management’s primary concern is delivering growth to investors. Unfortunately, this rote dedication to traditional, “guaranteed” growth tends to have the opposite effect over time. When the QC powder keg finally blows, it leaves a trail of obsolete products, unanswered customer frustrations, and antiquated quality management methods in its wake.

Why It’s Making Traditional QC Obsolete:

When you apply constant, unyielding pressure to produce, sell, and deliver, there’s no room for contemplation or experimentation.

Let’s face it: modern business is difficult and complex. It may sound childish to put it so bluntly, but the exponential expansion of global enterprise has made learning from failure considerably more challenging. Without taking the time to understand your organization’s limitations and opportunities in quality management, you’re doomed to maintain the status quo. At least, you’ll be there until someone outpaces you and sets a new one.

What You Can Do:

Make breaking with tradition a part of your process.

Be honest and unflinching about the future. The quality management approach that got your company where it is now might not work in five or ten years. Dedicate time, resources, and people to understand the attitudes and behavior that are actively harming your success. Your employees may need time to develop the skills that will allow them to use these intervals wisely, but setting aside time for strategic planning and analysis is the only way to yield better long-term quality.

Want to learn more about how Form.com can help your organization stay agile and improve long-term quality control? Click here to see how our custom-built solutions combine your existing process with a flexible mobile platform.

When you consider these three issues in quality management, how does your organization stack up? Are you ahead of the game, or are you still trying to align your company’s quality control vision? Even if your business is leading the pack, remember this: the future is uncertain. If you’re getting comfortable approaching QC with the same safe methods you used ten years earlier, you might be in for a rude awakening. It’s better to meet and anticipate quality challenges than to wait for them to appear unexpectedly.

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