Whose Q? GM’s New Quest for Quality

Recently, Laurel Nelson-Rowe of ASQ, interviewed Terry Woychowski of general Motors.  Terry is GM’s recently-appointed VP for Global Quality.  In the interview’s video segments at  http://asq.org/blog/2011/09/the-ps-and-qs-of-the-new-general-motors/ we get a clear discussion of Mr. Woychowski’s vision for General Motors.

One thing particularly struck me as I listened to Laurel’s interview with Terry Woychowski.  This is, I believe, fundamental to GM’s chances of success in the marketplace.  I was struck by Mr. Woychowski’s statement about GM’s definition of quality.  In the interview, Mr. Woychowski asserts that GM wants to “promise that our products and services will do what we say they will.”  This is a clear reflection of how GM understands both the meaning of quality, and who defines quality in any exchange of product or service.

The definition of quality has been described in similar, but distinct ways, by the pioneers of the quality improvement movement.  In his well-known book Quality Is Free, Phil Crosby defined quality as “conformance to requirements.” Joe Juran and others, also mention “freedom from defects.”  These definitions match up well to Terry Woychowski’s pledge that GM’s stuff will “do what we said it would.”

Where Crosby and Juran (and now, it seems, GM) focus mainly on quality from the perspective of the maker or provider of the product or service, W. Edwards Deming focused more on the customer – the recipient and user of the product or service.  In his own book Out of the Crisis, Deming wrote about quality as being fundamentally about the customer.  Deming noted (correctly, I think) that business only exists to provide what customers want.

The greater challenge in defining quality (for GM or any other organization), lies in understanding WHO DEFINES QUALITY?  Again, we may turn to the pioneers of the quality improvement movement for guidance:

The difficulty in defining quality is to translate future needs of the user into measurable characteristics. . .This is not easy.  As soon as one feels fairly successful, he finds that the needs of the consumer have changed. . .Quality can be defined only in terms of the agent.  Who is the judge of quality? (Out of the Crisis, 1988, emphasis added)

This notion of quality as defined by the consumer, and of the consumer’s requirements as often changing, is stated even more dynamically by yet another quality pioneer, Val Feigenbaum:

Quality is a customer determination. . . based upon. . . actual experience with the product or service, measured against his or her requirements – stated or unstated, conscious or merely sensed — and always representing a moving target in a competitive market. (Total Quality Control, 1983)

So, as I listen to Mr. Woychowski articulate his and GM’s vision for quality, I am struck by how a promise that stuff will “do everything we said it would” seems to lack the deeper understanding of both Deming and Feigenbaum.  We can see an example of this approach to quality in the highly competitive market for fast food hamburger sales.  All three of the major chains,  McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s, work very hard to define specifications for their burgers, and then, to assure that consistent quality is assured every time, every burger, everywhere in the world.

But is this sufficient?  Wendy’s recently conceded that no, this was not enough.  Wendy’s saw their sales slipping, as new chains like Five Guys seemed to capture the customer’s evolving tastes.  Wendy’s assembled a team and studied thousands of burgers from all sources.  The team explored every component of the burger (pickles: straight-cut or crinkle cut? Winner: crinkle).  The result is Wendy’s recent rollout of a newly re-designed burger – their principal product.

Wendy’s acknowledged that it is the customer – even with their changing needs and wants – who defines quality.  As a company openly committing to quality, we might ask General Motors how it is applying the teachings of Deming and Feigenbaum, as GM works to re-build its dominance in the automobile marketplace.  In recent years, GM has been successful in reviving its Cadillac brand.  They are introducing new models in their Buick line, that have met with critical and market success (the LaCrosse, and Regal).  The Chevrolet Cruze has been perhaps the most successful product launch in recent GM history.

Perhaps the most successful auto-maker in recent years is Hyundai.  From a mediocre entry into the American market, Hyundai has risen to high levels of quality and customer satisfaction.  They provide the best warranty in the auto industry.  Moreover, their new models, the Sonata, Elantra, and Accent, provide class-leading style along with performance, reliability, economy, and value.  The quest for success in the auto industry must rely on more than “conformance to specification” or “freedom from defects.”  Quality in the 21st century is defined BOTH by the maker/provider, AND the consumer – simultaneously.

Whose Q will you buy?  I’d say, the folks who are best reading your mind at any given moment.

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This entry was posted in ASQ, Change, Continuous Process Improvement, Creativity, Innovation, Quality. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Whose Q? GM’s New Quest for Quality

  1. complexified says:

    Yesterday I was reading the current issue of Consumer Reports magazine. I took note of recent data on the relative reliability of various cars, as I am planning to replace my 2002 Ford Escape soon (a vehicle that has been quite reliable and durable through more than 120,000 miles). In the small car category, at the bottom of the list, was the recently-introduced Chevy Cruze. The Cruze has been a marketing success for GM, with appealing style, and a competitive price in its class. But its reliability data showed it around 45% worse than the average reliability in its class.

    This was especially disappointing in light of the recent ASQ interview with GM’s new VP of quality. As I wrote previously, a corporate quality “promise that [our products and services] will do everything that we said they would” is necessary, but not sufficient, to meet or exceed customer expectations. I look forward to following the path over time of Chevy’s Cruze, and I hope that GM will make continuous improvement a priority and daily practice.

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