The drive for quality is no longer a topic of interest or intellectual discussion, but instead is a strategic and tactical imperative. The pursuit of quality has taken on a religious fervor that, even to the experts, has been surprising. To earn the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award has clearly become a prestigious accomplishment (witness the advertising campaign launched by IBM, Cadillac, Xerox and Motorola).

Understanding quality and developing the quality organization is a far greater challenge than most firms have understood, however. The first attempts to do so occurred in the early sixties under the slogan "Zero Defects." We discovered then that all the hoopla, sloganeering, badges and awards in the world were not enough without massive changes in the system. Consider, for example, that 169,000 organizations applied for consideration of the 1990 award while only 200 were considered worthy of even a second review by the evaluation committee.As so many American managers are prone to do, the search for simple answers goes on. The most commonly used definition of quality is simply "conformance to standards." Not only is this definition outdated by nearly two decades, it is terribly shortsighted. The Baldridge Award demands quality defined by the customer, pervasive organization-wide quality values, quality systems and processes, quality goals tied to strategic quality plans, continuous improvement of processes and outputs, shortened response time of all operations, decisions based on facts and data, design of error and defect prevention, relations with suppliers and methods of evaluating supplier quality processes, and transformational leadership which encourages participation and involvement of all employees.

One model of quality management demands constant emphasis on three elements: elimination of things gone wrong and/or doing wrong things (error-free, defect-free work); assuring things gone right and/or doing the right things (service, responsiveness, accuracy, promises kept); and delights/surprises (going beyond what is expected, doing more than just satisfying the customer, exceeding expectations adding unanticipated value, service or response).

To simply launch a program of "quality control," to implement a few quality circles or problem-solving teams or to issue a new mission statement to pronounce and exhort is not nearly enough in the competitive world we face. Too many firms have responded to the quality emphasis in exactly the wrong way - i.e. adding or increasing inspection, or by adding committees, task forces and quality gurus. The object of the quality movement is to devise systems which eliminate defects, not one which catches them. Our findings are quite consistent with national findings. Forty percent to 60 percent of the cost associated with doing business is consumed by wasteful activity - checking, correcting, fixing, repairing, apologizing or advertising to gain customers to make up for those who have been lost.

Mazda has demonstrated its commitment to quality by cutting executive pay 10 percent for six months as a consequence of just 3,500 cars recalled for defective brake lights. Nordstrom is noted for its service and follow-up and its ability to go beyond what is expected. Ford Motor has provided many examples of improving quality in recent years - trumpeting its employee involvement process. Most recently, you may have noticed the ads Ford is running to point out the new coating it is using on the auto exterior to prevent scratches and stone bruises. The differences are not just cosmetic. A well-conceived total quality effort, one which focuses on service, productivity, efficiency and maximizing the use of resources so that more and more resources are available for improving product quality and customer service has massive potential. The life expectancy of U.S. manufactured appliances, for example, varies from eight years to 18 years for seven major brands. The number of defects in manufacture of U.S. cars ranges from 37 per unit to 154 per unit, the amount of time required to change identical major manufacturing dies ranges from two minutes to two hours in different plants. The payoff from a serious quality effort are phenomenal.