Defects and Errors Happen

Who takes the blame?

by Charles Waldo

In the last HCBM my article was titled “1,501 Ways To Bring Out The Best In People.” The article suggested numerous methods of recognizing and rewarding employee performance way above average. The assumption is that earned recognition, appreciation, and, sometimes, financial rewards given sincerely in a timely manner will make the employee feel better about herself and her job and will encourage her to repeat or, even better, improve that performance -- good for the employee and the organization.

What do you think about that assumption? Is it valid? Does it square with your experiences? How do most people respond to earned praise? How about you? Do praise and recognition raise productivity and/or quality? Does praise beget more praise? Or are bonuses and raises better motivators? But how often will these be available?

But things don’t always go right

To quote Murphy’ First Law: If anything can wrong, it will.

Observations of the “real world” clearly show that employees at all levels (including CEO’s) sometimes make mistakes; miscommunicate; resist, defy, or misinterpret directions; are dishonest; and on and on. People are not perfect, just human. It’s pretty hard to praise an employee for “doing something wrong” or “doing the wrong thing” no matter what their original intention. But was the error really their fault?


Dr. Deming’s Perspectives

Shortly after the end of WWII the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent Dr. W. Edwards Deming (Yale Ph.D. in Physics) and other consultants to war-devastated Japan to help farmers find better ways of increasing crop yields faster and more profitably.

Over time Deming became acquainted with executives of Japanese industrial companies also attempting to rebuild. He preached that they could not compete on the world stage unless their product quality was raised dramatically and continuously. Some got on board.

He introduced “Statistical Process Control” (SPC), as a process designed to catch and correct defects before they were sent on down the line. Then processes were designed that would “error proof” production flow. “How have you improved today?,” “Do it right the first time,” and “The customer is not paying for your mistakes” were typical slogans plastered on walls of Japanese plants.

The quality journey was not an overnight trip and many Japanese exports were in fact “junk.” But they were cheap and tended to fill price points that U.S. products didn’t, especially in the automotive segment. Deming kept pounding away with the “quality is everything” message.

Long before U.S. producers bought it, Japanese auto manufacturers were delivering better and better products at very competitive prices, initially exporting to the U.S. and, later, building huge, modern assembly plants in the U.S. In Indiana: Toyota in Princeton, Honda in Greensburg, and Subaru in Lafayette.

After consulting with numerous Japanese manufacturers, Deming generated a new way of thinking about product quality and the interplay between front-line worker, her supervisor, and middle/ top management. Heretofore, and even today in some organizations (not yours, I hope), the front-line worker almost always was blamed when quality or productivity slipped. However, Deming’s astute observations and analyses led him to conclude that front-line workers were usually really responsible for only between 1 and 10% of total defects and errors, the average in Japan in those days (the 1970’s-80’s) being about 6%. Today it’s less than 1%.

What about the other 90 - 99% ? Deming laid the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of managers and staff above the front line for poorly designed and poorly functioning manufacturing and assembly systems, neither of which front liners usually have any control or influence over. Yet front-liners have to use what they are given by management and then usually take the blame for quality issues. What about at your place?

Ask some questions

Deming preached that, before a supervisor (or someone above that level) blames a worker for producing a defect, ask some questions about the system and environment in which she labors. Get at the root cause(s).

1. Job Requirements – Has each job been thoroughly analyzed as to what minimum physical, intellectual, experiential, and psychological factors employees need in order to do great work? Are these requirements based on facts or guessing or wishful thinking?
2. Hiring and Placement Practices – What kinds of candidates are actually sought? Who actually gets hired? Do they meet the minimum job requirements set forth in #1 above? What happens when “must have factors” are bypassed or ignored by management? For example, if very, very good close-up eyesight is required and a new person without that kind of eyesight is brought on board and produces defects, whose fault is it? What does your organization do? Does it hold tight to the required specs ?
3. Initial Training – Are new hires or transfers thoroughly trained and qualified by a “master operator” as to what the job is, how it is performed, proper use of equipment, and so on? Are workers new to the department or operation tested and re-tested until they perform flawlessly, every time? Or, must they learn on their own? Are there peer coaches who help in the early training?
4. On-going development – Are workers’ physical, mental, and other required performance factors re-evaluated periodically? Are employees given the opportunity and support to learn new skills and broaden their abilities? Do they “grow” and prepare for advancement or stand still?
5. What is Quality? Deming asked: Does each worker know what the standards are for “top quality” and know how to recognize unacceptable quality before the product gets sent on? And, even better, is she trained to recognize factors that can lead to quality issues before they happen and take pre-emptive action?
6. Master supervisors -- Are supervisors highly skilled in the jobs they supervise? Have they “been there?” Can they pass their experience and wisdom on to new employees? Do they know how to both train and encourage new employees through the inevitable stresses of learning a new job? Are your supervisors and managers “Masters” of the job? How about you?
7. Front line participation – When new equipment or processes are being considered by management, do the front line personnel who will actually use the equipment get the opportunity to preview the plans and assess them from their (the users) perspectives? Are front-liners’ assessments and suggestions taken seriously?
8. Worker Problem and Problem Workers – Are employees who won’t do a first class job identified and weeded out….fast? If the “problem employee wants to do good work but can’t because of physical issues, lack of training, etc., is she counseled, provided the needed tools, and given another chance to do a good job?
9. System issues – If the front-liner is only responsible for 10% or less of the problems, 90% of the causes of the problems hide elsewhere and must be found and addressed. Unfortunately, I am out of space for that investigation. Maybe another time.

Hopefully, the above thoughts will help build a better front line for your organization which should lead to a much better bottom line. Good luck.

Note on Dr. W. Edwards Deming, 1900-93: authored two books on Quality and Satisfying the Customer -- Out of the Crises and The New Economics – which are well worth reading even today. As partial recognition for his contributions to the re-building of Japanese industry into a peacetime powerhouse, the Union of Japanese Science and Engineering launched the Deming Prize for Quality in 1951, with Dr. Deming honored as its first recipient. It is still highly sought, especially in Japan. Although open to the world, it is mainly Japanese, Indian, and Taiwanese firms that win. Only a couple of U.S. companies have won in all these years. U.S. firms prefer to compete for the Malcolm Baldridge or J.D. Powers Awards for Quality.
Charles Waldo, Ph.D., is Professor of Marketing (ret.) at Anderson University’s Falls School of Business. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..