Six SIgma–The Customer: The North Star of Quality


In their book Six Sigma:  The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations, Ikel Harry, Ph.D., and Richard Schroeder discuss the topic “Changing What Companies Measure” in chapter six.

In the last post, I discussed the importance of CTQ or Critical-to-Quality characteristics and how they need to be linked first and foremost to customer satisfaction, and then to the processes which a company needs to focus on improving in order to increase quality.   Again, it is important to remind the readers that the common sense of the meaning “quality”, that is, the absence of defects, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for quality.   Meaning that yes, the product has to be defect-free, but it also has to be what the customer wanted.   Necessary but not sufficient means that if the product is defect-free, but is not what the customer wanted, then the customer won’t buy it.   So “quality” in the world of manufacturing has to mean “a product the customer wants which is free of defects.”

The purpose of this post is to delve a little more deeply into what “customer satisfaction” means.  There are three areas:

  1. Products that are high-quality (no defects and in line with customer requirements)
  2. Products that are delivered on time
  3. Products that are at the lowest possible cost (while being consistent with 1 and 2)

Why is this important for companies to focus on?   Many companies focus on quantities like “production time”, or how fast the products are being put through the manufacturing line, which do not correlate with 1, 2 or 3 above.   One of the famous scenes in the I Love Lucy series is the one where Lucy and Ethel decide to get a job in a chocolate factory.   They do okay during the first line test, so the supervisor yells “SPEED IT UP!” and it goes so impossibly fast that the hapless pair end up cramming the chocolates into mouths, pockets, and anywhere they can in order to make sure none of the chocolates end up going unwrapped through the conveyor belt to the next station.    The chances that some chocolate may have defects in them (like Lucy and Ethel’s teeth marks) has been increased by the unreasoning “need for speed” on the part of the supervisor.

And just because the chocolates are shooting out of the conveyor belt at lightning speed doesn’t mean they’ll get to the customer on time, because that will depend on delivery trucks, etc.    And the fact that there may need to be some “rework” on the assembly line will increase the cost of the product, not decrease it.

So this is an example of how the company is focusing on something that impressed the supervisor and may even impress someone in the board room but does not correlate to customer satisfaction in any way, shape or form.   Although this is a ridiculous example taken from a classic comedy show, the authors assure us that there are examples such as ridiculous out there in the world of manufacturing, with one difference:   the stories told by those companies more often as not end up not being comedies, but tragedies.

In the last post on this chapter, the authors talk about the difference between product technology and process technology, which is why many inventions created in America, from the transistor back in the 1950s to the fax machine in the1960s, were only made profitable by the Japanese.   This culture difference is the subject of the next post.

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