Quality

When you hear or read about quality from a modern for-profit corporation, it's wise to pay close attention. The object of a modern for-profit corporation, of course, is to make money, not to accomplish a public mission -- that is a privilege of non-profit corporations (some of them). The most you can expect from a corporation is quarterly sales and yearly expenses, honestly reported to its shareholders.

Any consideration beyond honest reporting is forced upon a corporation by customers, the courts, and by government regulators acting in the public interest. If the corporation is meeting a standard issued by a government that is willing to fund and execute enforcement, it could actually be doing the right thing. If the corporation is meeting a "voluntary" standard, it could also be doing the right thing, but it could also be performing a publicity stunt.

For instance, suppose a big-box retailer is being criticized for traffic and pollution produced by their customers, who drive to their store from up to a hundred miles away. It could address this issue by supporting Internet sales, providing incentives for customers to get to the store by public transportation, and providing home delivery at cost using low-pollution vehicles. Or, it could build a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified big-box store with trees in the parking lot, solar panels on the roof, and dual-flush toilets in the bathrooms. In the latter case, the store may be LEED certified, but the traffic and pollution will still be there.

Or suppose a pharmaceutical corporation is being criticized for the astronomical prices of drugs needed by the elderly of America. It could address this issue by lowering its prices for the elderly and producing low-cost generic versions of key drugs. Or, it could send a mobile pharmacy around the country handing out discount drugs to a miniscule segment of the elderly population. In the latter case, those in the neighborhood may benefit, but the high prices will still be there.

Or suppose a high-tech corporation suffers from wasted effort and missed schedules. It could address this issue by establishing requirements, establishing a realistic plan to meet those requirements, and executing that plan while resisting distractions and keeping everyone informed. Or, it could create ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certified-processes, train people in them, and then forget about them until the ISO auditor comes, at which point it holds a dog-and-pony show. In the latter case, the ISO auditor may be satisfied, but the wasted effort and missed schedules will still be there.

After most of a lifetime spent working in the private sector, I have concluded that the priorities of a corporation are as follows, in roughly this order:

1. Shipping on schedule a product adequate to meeting the current market window.
2. Adequately addressing on schedule immediate customer issues in shipped product.
3. Developing on schedule new product adequate to meeting a projected market window.
4. Proactively addressing long-term quality issues.

Given these priorities, it is clear that in a for-profit corporation, haste and sloppiness will be the rule, and improving quality will be a spare-time activity for hobbyists.

Not to say you shouldn't try. If people hadn't tried to improve quality, we'd still be sleeping behind boulders, hunting with sticks, and trying to cure disease with incantations. But you should know in advance that you may break your heart.

23-Feb-2007