The Maturation Of American Quality

Do you remember when everyone was absolutely paranoid about quality? It wasn't so long ago. Employing the philosophy and statistical techniques of Demming, the Japanese had raised the bar on both the definition of what constitutes a good part and on an acceptable conformance rate at which parts are made to that level on a daily basis.

Columns From: 4/1/1997 Modern Machine Shop, ,

Do you remember when everyone was absolutely paranoid about quality? It wasn't so long ago. Employing the philosophy and statistical techniques of Demming, the Japanese had raised the bar on both the definition of what constitutes a good part and on an acceptable conformance rate at which parts are made to that level on a daily basis. Japanese products of all sorts, but most notably automobiles, were capturing American markets at alarming rates. And just about everyone who was making parts here was scrambling to catch up.

In retrospect, that was probably the best thing that could have happened—the wake-up call that spurred American manufacturing on to a truly spectacular comeback. But that Renaissance brought a lot of pain with it, and maybe a bit of silliness too as many American firms dutifully sought to emulate Japanese technique in all the ways that the authors and consultants suggested. Companies plastered the shop walls with paper, wearing their control charts like a badge, had meeting upon meeting, wrote mission statements with a vengeance, and learned all sorts of new words they could barely pronounce. Kaizen, brother.

That we may have gone a little overboard here and there is eminently forgivable, however. Many companies were struggling for their very survival, heading full steam into uncharted waters with no way back. Along the way, valuable lessons were learned—through success and failure—as more and more shops gained a practical perspective on the application of preventive quality management and continuous improvement.

What I find most indicative now of the distance we've come is how matter-of-fact so many shops are about their excellent quality regimens. The posters and slogans have largely disappeared as have the other mostly-for-show forms of earlier quality initiatives. They've been replaced by a broad acceptance of statistical process management and other preventive quality measures. Shop people talk as routinely about their Cpk's as they once talked about micrometers. Just another tool in the box.

Truth is, these are fine times for American manufacturing—not for what we're yelling, but for what's calmly being done every day. At least that's the way it is in an awful lot of companies I see. Does it look pretty much that way in your shop too?

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