Author's note: This is the fourth in a series of articles on quality improvement in the organization.

Resolutions to change come in many forms. There may be personal conquests - like losing 20 pounds, getting out of bed earlier each day, being more patient with the kids or reading a book a month.Business goals to effect change may include reducing a manufacturing defect by 50 percent, upgrading an ancient data processing system, spending less time in meetings, or nailing down a valuable account that has eluded the company for years.

Why set goals? The initial decision to set a goal means that there is dissatisfaction with the performance of a process. Within a business, a process may turn up errors in design, manufacturing or accounting, for example.

Where does the quality process fit in? Looking at how goal-setting fits in with the quality-improvement process can provide some valuable methods for setting and attaining both business and personal goals.

But first, a definition of quality. Quality is defined simply as conformance to requirements. The goal is zero defects. It is achieved through a system of prevention, that is, a system that keeps errors from occurring. The process must be measured against a performance standard to determine if it meets the goal.

Begin the quality-improvement process by isolating and defining the specific process where problems, or "defects," occur. Then analyze the process.

Define the performance standards. The result of the process is usually defined as zero defects, but the cost must be specified, as well as the time allowed to achieve the process. The process requirements, that is, the necessary materials and information, must also be defined.

After isolating the problem and defining the process - what it takes to achieve zero defects - more realistic goals can be set.

Suppose you've defined the problem as being 20 pounds overweight and your goal is to lose it all in eight weeks. You've determined the requirements include consuming only 800 calories per day. You know from past attempts at losing weight that you can maintain this process for two weeks at best. But after eating nothing but grapefruit, black coffee and dry toast for two weeks, you feel hungry, irritable and guilty (after sneaking chocolate bars from the vending machine) and give up. So much for quality improvement, right?

By revising the unreasonable requirements of the process to allow a larger number of calories per day, a longer time frame (12 weeks instead of eight) and reasonable exercise (walking the dog two miles per day), the goal becomes attainable.

Measurement and prevention: A continuing part of the quality-improvement process is measurement - calculating at defined intervals how close you are to achieving the goal. You may choose to get on the bathroom scale once a week or every day. Manufacturing defects may be counted as the process ends, or on a daily, weekly or monthly basis - whatever is most practical. Measurement continues, perhaps less frequently, even after the goal is met.

Once the process is revised and the goal is achieved, a system of prevention must be established. After losing 20 pounds, or reducing a manufacturing defect by 50 percent, how can that goal be maintained?

Prevention in this case may include completely eliminating the consumption of high fat/high sugar foods and continuing a regular program of exercise. A defect-prevention system in manufacturing may require additional manual testing and checking.

The reason many New Year's resolutions are enthusiastically adopted and then abandoned before Martin Luther King's birthday is simple. The individual setting the goal doesn't understand the process required to achieve the goal. Hence, the goal is unrealistic, and possibly unachievable.

Reducing the occurrence of a certain product defect by 50 percent by year's end, for example, appears to be a noble goal on the surface. But only understanding the process - and finding out exactly why the defect is occurring - will determine if this goal is achievable or not.

Countless dollars are spent on "motivational" seminars, tapes and books as shortcuts to quality. Why notfollow the principles of quality improvement by examining your processes instead? There's no magic in the quality-improvement process - and most people know the answers if they study the process. En route, you'll gain a better understanding of how your business really works, and also how your personal goals can be achieved.

Mike Miller is vice president of I O Corp.