You may recall that in 2011, I am trying something new — participating in the Influential Voices program of the American Society for Quality.

The program is pretty simple. Each month, the folks at ASQ put up a blog post which they ask us to respond to. At the end of the month, the Executive Director of ASQ, Paul Borawski, does a summary post, and uses that summary to start the next one. The October blog post is on a culture of quality at General Motors, and mostly consists of a video interview with Terry Woychowski, GM’s new Vice President of Global Quality and Launch. (In the software world, I suspect we’d replace “launch” with something like “shipping” or “release management”, but i’m honestly not quite sure.)
Terry sums up quality with the phrase “Promise, Personal, Performance.” The first P, or promise, means the product needs to do what it claims to do. The second, or personal, implies that individuals will take responsibility for their work, from everything from input (refusing to take in shoddy products), to output (the stuff we give to the next guy.) Finally, the company has a goal for performance, that Terry expresses as “We want to be the quality leader in every segment that we compete in, every market that we sell in.”
On it’s face, that’s a bit of a tall order.
Not only that, but i’m not sure we can say that GM has accomplished it. I mean, this is a company that, two years ago, was on the ropes. It took a government bailout, defaulted on it’s bonds, laid off thousands of workers, and forced dealerships to close, some of which had been in the same family for three or four generations.
Fulfilling it’s quality promise?
It wanted to talk to an executive about building great products, products that are pleasing and satisfy the end-customer, how about a company that had been long, long over it’s turnaround hump, and had been consistently keeping it’s promises for at least ten years? Perhaps a company like Apple?
Oh I know, someone is going to shout that I’m a software guy, and go figure that I would suggest Apple.
But Apple is not just a software company; they make computers.
Tablet Computers.
MP3 Players.
Not only does Apple make those things, it is the niche (read: “high end”) market leader in each of those categories.
Apple might not make the most in sales by market segment, but they certainly have high margins. Wall Street respects the company enough to make it the number one publicly traded company in the world measured by market capitalization.
And here we are talking about GM.
Thinking about it … Differently
There certainly are a few ‘nuggets’ in the GM interview. For example, Mr. Woychowski states that one of GM’s measures for quality is the cost of warranty service, which has gone done something like 45%, which, if that is per car per year, seems like a reasonable metric to me.
He also said that he makes an effort, along with other executives, to talk to a dis-satisfied customer every single day. When I compare that to the old GM culture, where the executives rode special glass elevators, parked in a special parking lot, and had security guards in order to make sure that they didn’t have to interactive with the mere employees, well, it’s refreshing.
There are also a few claims that bug me, like claiming the company can’t meet it’s goal of creating the best products in each category without quality. This is true, but only in the sense that 1=1 is true; it’s restating the same premise with different words, like “we can’t be number one in sales unless we sell the most vehicles!” (He also claims that the chevy volt has more complexity in it’s radio than the entire Apollo spacecraft project. That’s true, but the Apollo Guidance Computer had 2K of RAM. In comparison, a much more powerful computer probably powers your microwave; you can certainly get more powerful, though slightly larger, computers for five dollars at any summer yard sale.)
Another nugget: GM customizes it’s vehicles by market. Not just putting the steering wheel on the right in the United Kingdom, but also little things, like designing the interior of American Cars around cupholders, while in Europe they are generally ignored. (Note to self: Europeans don’t typically eat in their cars. They are also generally thinner.)
So there’s certainly stuff in there to discuss and debate.
Yet I kept coming back to it: why GM? Why not Apple? Sure, you could say, Cars are important, we should have at least one … except we had a Quality Executive from Ford on a few months ago.
Two car guys and a steel company.
What’s going on here?
Focus Matters
Car companies, and, to a lesser extent, the folks in Silicon Valley, talk about engineers. Engineers build stuff. Engineers solve problems. This means that everything can be seen through the lens of Engineering. (My brother in law actually took a course in Financial Engineering when he was at the University of Michigan. I think that was before the Enron scandal. But I digress.)
When I read [email protected] Company, I am amazed at what I read. Everything in that Magazine comes down to design and designers. I mean everything. Apparently, if things are designed right, they just work … engineering is for, I dunno. Something else.
If you read Blomberg BusinessWeek, the lens is globalization. Everything is connected; a rise in gas prices here might cause a rise in corn prices over there that could lead to geo-political instability in a third place.
There are similar things in writing circles, where we tend to see everything as writing, and in software test circles, were everything is a risk to be evaluated or managed.
And for ASQ, originally known as the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC), the lens is manufacturing of physical devices.
That’s okay, and, to some extent, natural.
What GM, what Ford, and what Chrysler do are important for the country, and, for you BusinessWeek Readers, even for the global economy.
I just suspect it’s time for us to take a step back and ask: How important?
Should the ASQ be talking to the world leads in auto manufacturing (who are struggling), or the folks in other, related industries who are not?
Final Thought
I learned a small handful of things from the Handbook of Software Quality Assurance in it’s 3rd edition. One of my biggest takeaways was th
e interplay of quality and production.
I am paraphrasing, but, according to the book, the best-run companies (at least, the ones that learned something from the japanese quality revolution) have a CEO who is also visibly the chief quality officer.
That is to say, when you go to quality conferences and events, you see the CEO. When there is a quality problem, the CEO rolls up his sleeves.
Other companies, companies that see the revolution more … tangentially … often take a different approach. In these companies the CEO (or Vice President of Ops, or Vice President of Products) might put his arm around a bright, fresh, young engineer, and say something that boils down to this:
“We want some of that quality stuffs. I’m going to empower you to go do that quality stuff. You’ll be the chief quality officer. Just don’t ask the organization to change anything or bother me; I’m too busy with the busy business of production to be bothered with that quality stuff. But we want it and all that. Good luck.”
I may be embellishing a bit.
The point is, the first company, the one where the CEO is Mr. Quality, has a fighting chance. The second one does not. While not all cases are that extreme, companies generally lean toward one or the other.
So here’s the deal.
In both the GM interview and the Ford interview, we were redirected to some ‘voice’ of quality, an advocate for quality in the executive suite.
Who was the chief quality officer at Apple?
You might night have always agreed with him, you might not always like him, but Steve Jobs was certainly the man when it came to quality.
Which brings up an interesting and recurring problem: Groups like ASQ tend to portray quality as a sort of specialization. At the same time, we claim that everyone should be involved in quality.
If the CEO and his managers are all quality officers, what do we need these mysterious quality people for? (It’s hard for me to get excited about auditing, checklists, ISO standards, and diagrammed process flows. Is that really who we want to be?)
Now that is a conversation I would be interested in; I think ASQ is position to lead it.
The question is, who should we be having it with?
Dare I suggest the CEO of a company know for innovative, ground-breaking, world-class products? Not a company that turned around last year, but a company with decade of steady growth and success?
It doesn’t have to be Apple Computer. It might be 3M, or netflix, or the people at Ideo.
Yes, ASQ, I do think it might be time to think different.