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Quality Methods Essential to Innovation and Financial Success


In an August 3, 2012 AP article posted on The Guardian titled "Decline of entrepreneurship blamed for Japan woes," author Yuri Kageyama cites several instances of young Japanese innovators creating new technologies and business startups. These entrepreneurs are newsworthy because they contrast with a general malaise Kageyama sees in Japanese corporate culture these days. The article continues to make startling statements around issues affecting all of us in the quality field.

1,000 Failures = 1,000 Discoveries

In the AP article, one inventor, William Saito, was quoted as saying, "In order to have innovation, you must accept a certain amount of failure. To the Japanese, this has become taboo."

edison light bulb patentIn America, we are familiar with Thomas Edison's reported statement about his research on the incandescent light bulb: "I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb."

Edison admonishes us to continue to try until success is achieved.

Major Japanese companies such as Toyota are renown for their worker suggestions systems, collecting and acting on more than ten times the number of suggestions in U.S. companies. The key, I think, is that their management has created a culture of problem solving where improvements are not only encouraged, but actually implemented and rewarded with both recognition and some monetary compensation.

Is this philosophy alive in all Japanese organizations? Recent revelations of nuclear disaster cover-ups at the Tokyo Power Company and their Japanese government regulators suggest that market competition favors suggestions and improvement better than monopolies.

QC's PDCA = Creative, Dynamic Changes

In another quote in the AP article, a creativity consultant, Chiaki Hayashi says, "Top Japanese companies have a load of talented hardworking people, but they have become so obsessed with rigidity like quality control in mass production that their thinking has grown static, and they can't figure out where to start or how to change."

This statement is disturbing in that it sets creativity and change as the opposite of quality control. I think some clarification and factual corrections are warranted for such over-simplification: Quality control is not static, but an active monitoring of process performance to assure that results stay within acceptable limits of variation based on historical capabilities. The reason for this is not to prevent improvement but to enable it.

Why? When a process is statistically stable, it is predictable. When it is predictable, it can be improved with predictable results. This is the PDCA cycle. Without a stable process, such as Dr. Deming showed in his famous funnel experiment and red bead experiment, results are random and any improvement effort will be no more than "tampering."

Bringing a process under control is part of the larger SDCA-PDCA spiral-up or continuous improvement approach. This translates as Standardize-Do-Check-Act followed by Plan (the improvement)-Do-Check-Act, followed again by SDCA-PDCA, etc. Sometimes the planned improvements are minor and sometimes they are major innovations.

While most quality specialists talk about SDCA and PDCA in terms of industrial processes, they are equally applicable to human processes found in business activities such as strategy and planning.

At the plant floor level, improvement tends towards existing products and processes using the well-known 7 Quality Tools, while at the business activity level, improvement tends toward future products and growth using the 7 Management and Planning Tools.

graphic by QFDI: QFD is a PDCA approachIn our QFD world where the focus is new product development, we use 7MP tools regularly, such as affinity diagram, hierarchy diagram, relations diagram, matrices and tables, as well as updates such as AHP instead of matrix data analysis, FMEA instead of PDPC, and speed deployment instead of activity network diagrams.

Quality control creates an environment where small, recurring problems are under control and people are not spending their day putting our fires. Now, they have time to think about positive quality issues like better products to beat the competition and win customer loyalty.

Translating Innovation into Financial Success

Methods like QFD and the 7MP tools actually encourage innovation in many ways. They start with customer language, not product specifications. That means we can better understand what customers truly need now and in the future and more easily see how to replace today's solutions and technology with tomorrow's.

QFD also helps customers prioritize their needs, state their preferences for competitors, and in other ways help us focus our innovation where it matters the most to customers. This is important because no matter how innovative a new technology is, if it does not solve an important customer problem, enable a customer to grasp an important opportunity, or enhance a customer's image in some important way, it will have limited market success.

In other words, innovation does not start with "how" an innovation performs or functions, but "why" customers would want such an enhancement. And rather than hinder innovation, quality methods like QFD and the 7MP tools are essential to translating innovation into financial success.

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© QFD Institute / Glenn Mazur  

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