In a previous article, I explored the real causes of poor quality, including a management style that inhibits quality work. This article explains some basic management techniques which create quality work.

First, a review. Quality is goods and services conforming to the customer's requirements. Poor quality results when requirements are unclear or not met. Every employee, manager or executive is both a "customer" (one who receives goods or services) and a "vendor" (a provider of goods or services).The second cause of poor quality is the belief that "zero defects," is impossible. "That's close enough" and "that's probably acceptable to the customer" are excuses for laziness and double standards.

Quality is achieved by preventing defects. To prevent defects, the process that produces the defects must be understood. When poor quality occurs, vendors and customers do not understand the processes which created the defects.

Some quality management practices: The first step in starting the quality improvement process takes guts. Setting the example shows you understand the quality improvement process.

Plan your day with quality as the first item on your "to do" list. If quality is not your first priority every day then you are personally not committed to quality and your organization won't be committed to quality. Put quality on every meeting agenda and put it first.

Next, let's do a quality exercise. List the problems in your job. Their causes are unimportant. Rank the problems according to their importance. Most old-style management consultants advise starting at the top of the list and solving each problem in order. If you do this, you will still be at the top when you check your list next year.

Rather, start with a minor problem, one that affects you personally and is inside your organization. On a sheet of paper, write the name of the problem, such as "typing errors in letters." Then write down who the customer is. This is the person who receives the output from the process. This is either you or another employee within the organization. Talk with the customer and write down their requirements. If you are the customer, write down what you require. Be specific. Write down exactly what is required.

Now write down the name of the supplier (whoever gives the customer the output) and ask what they understand the requirements to be. Write those down. Compare the two lists. They will be vastly different. Next write down every step that the "vendor" goes through to fulfill those requirements. Include the materials used, the equipment used, the training required and the time needed.

Step back and review the worksheet you've created. Look for differences in requirements, weaknesses, in the processes, inadequacies in materials, equipment, training or time.

You've just analyzed your first quality problem. Most likely you found the place where the problem occurred.

Now for the fun part. Devise ways this process can be changed to prevent the problem from occurring. Make sure you get ideas from both the "customer" and "vendor," the people involved in the process. Make sure your solution is "foolproofed." That means the supplier will produce a defect-free product or service every time no matter what. It's like locking the door on poor quality.

Finally, change the process with your newly found prevention. Next, set a goal, and the goal should be "zero defects." Measure the process. Some quality-smart managers are still measuring processes that have been defect-free for years. If you're personally involved in the process, consider posting your measurements on the wall next to your desk. During the next week show people your chart. Take time to explain what you're measuring and how you are doing. Sweep your pride under the rug. Display the chart even when measurements aren't on target. And get ready for a positive reaction. If you're a top-level executive or manager, the idea will spread like wildfire.

Your personal commitment to practice quality daily is the most important step in improving quality. It's called "management commitment." Don't get discouraged; it took years to learn bad management habits and it will take years to learn correct quality management principles.

Mike Miller is vice president of I-O Corp., a Utah manufacturer and distributor of software for IBM midrange computer systems.