In Search of Excellence

Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute

“A product or service possesses quality if it helps someone and enjoys a sustainable market.”

W. Edwards Deming 

“Quality is defined by doing it right the first time.”

Phillip Crosby

“There is not a day I don’t think about what Dr. Deming meant to us. Deming is the core of our management.”

Shoichiro Toyoda


As a consumer, my introduction to the quality of the Toyota’s management system began in 1989 with the purchase of a Toyota pickup truck. With 29 years of hindsight, I now realize I was enticed by Toyota’s selective focus on what I refer to as Contextual Excellence more so than the exclusive Compliance Excellence of many of its competitors.

After several years of driving the Toyota pick-up, I began to realize the higher reliability of the truck’s components, from the electrical system to the air conditioning system to the engine coolant system, none of which ever needed replacement when the truck was sold after 14 years of ownership.    I wish I could say the same for the purchase of a Toyota mini-van in 1998, for which the automatic transmission suddenly failed after six months of ownership, with less than 10,000 miles of accumulated use, on, of all times, Christmas morning.   Worse yet, 80 miles away from home, stranded on a motorway, and in need of a tow truck.   Call it a AAA moment.   Much to my chagrin, when buying the mini-van, I declined the extended service option after reading a little-known account of the “snap fit” assembly of a Toyota that reinforced my admiration for their management system.    A few years later, I met an engineer from Toyota’s Georgetown facility, where our mini-van was produced.   When I shared that my family was the owner of mini-van from this factory, the engineer asked how we liked it.   Upon offering our sad tale of a highly premature transmission breakdown, his reaction quickly revealed his awareness of this failure mode.    Asked for an explanation, he replied, “we tried to save a few pennies on a bearing.”    My response, “you did, but you cost your customers far more than you saved.”

Returning to the concept of snap-fit, this is a reference to something I first read about in an account of the remarkable turnaround of Xerox between 1982 and 1990, one shared by CEO David Kearns in his 1992 book, Prophets in the Dark.   According to Kearns, one of his senior staff members, Frank Pipp, had once served as the assembly plant manager for the Ford Motor Company, a decade or more before Dr. Deming was invited to a first meeting with CEO Donald Petersen.

In a timeframe in which mating parts in this car plant could not be assembled without hammers, Pipp directed his staff to purchase competitors cars and take them apart.  His plan was to have the final assembly team disassemble these cars and learn first-hand how well they assembled.  At that time frame within his plant, if two connecting parts could be assembled without the use of a handy rubber mallet, these parts were known as “snap fit.”   The remaining parts required mallets to assemble.  To Pipp’s amazement, one car purchased was 100% “snap fit.”  Shocked by the results, he instructed the team to repeat the assembly operation.  They did and found again that the Toyota product was 100% snap fit.    The era of this story was the late 1960s and the discovery was not lost on Pipp.  In contrast, he noted that the “Dearborn people,” from Ford’s corporate offices, were invited to look over the truck themselves and witness the assembly team’s discovery.  According to Pipp, everyone was very quiet, until the division general manager cleared his throat and remarked, “The customer will never notice.”  And then everyone excitedly nodded assent and exclaimed, “Yeah, yeah, that’s right” and they all trotted off happy as clams.”

In this blog, I would like to present a simple contrast between Compliance Excellence and Contextual Excellence and offer readers insights on the significance of this distinction.   In simple terms, Compliance Excellence is revealed by posing questions about the completion of tasks.   For example, were the trash cans placed at the curb last night?   Did you clean your room?   Did you complete your homework?   In each case, the inquiry about completion of a given task has only two answers, yes or no.   The task is either complete or incomplete, pass or fail.   With no regard for a greater system, a part, task, module, activity, or component, viewed in isolation, receives the quality stamp of “good” or “bad.”   There are no shades of gray when it comes to Compliance Excellence.    In terms of how Phillip Crosby defined quality, “right the first time” implies a completed part or task is right, not wrong; good, not bad.   Pass or fail.

Compliance Excellence is also revealed through questions that involve counting.   By way of illustration, one might be asked about the distance to the nearest beach, airport, church, or hardware store.    Whatever the answer, 10, 30.5, or 50, measured in units of time (whole or using fractions), as is often the case in Los Angeles, or in units of length, such as kilometers, Compliance Excellence infers that each unit of measure is identical to the other units; all miles are the same, all red beads are red, all white beads are white, all seconds are identical and, therefore, absolutely interchangeable, without variation.    Compliance Excellence discloses detached answers; yes or no; as well as answers which relate to full units, 13, or a reference to a fractional unit, 11.5.   No matter the answer, differences (variation) in elevation along the route, kilometer to kilometer, are ignored, as readily as the differences between Valencia oranges while counting them to fill an order for a dozen.   The fundamental assumption is that all units are exactly the same, in every way.   Contextual Excellence provides awareness of the variation in how a task is completed, as well as awareness of the differences between items or units being counted.   Contextual Excellence reveals the infinite number of ways a task can be completed or the infinite number of ways a requirement can be met.    In doing so, Contextual Excellence divulges shades of gray.  Upon integration of tasks or components, these carefully accumulated differences appear in use, when their integration is actively managed.    The impact of this ability to “manage with a systems view” is revealed by components that perform better together, as I experienced with our Toyota pick-up truck.

Another simple illustration of the difference between these modes of excellence is revealed by replies to the statement, “List 5 things that are needed to wash a table,“ in borrowing a classic example from Dr. Deming.    The most frequent answers include water, a cleaning solution, a bucket, a sponge, a person, and, perhaps, someone to clean the table.   More often than not, the replies do not include needing to know how the table will be used, once cleaned.   Guided by such awareness of situations in which context matters, Contextual Excellence is about aligning the varying degree of cleanliness of the table with its intended use, shifting from the table is clean (or not) to how clean it should be.    Contextual Excellence mirrors Dr. Deming’s definition of the quality or a product or service, mindful of how well it helps someone, how well a given task fits into a greater system.    That is, awareness of the context of how well a product or service performs.    Compliance Excellence mirrors Phillip Crosby’s definition of quality, with a focus of being right or wrong, pass or fail, good or bad.

In studying Dr. Deming’s management philosophy, guided by a lens of appreciation of his System of Profound Knowledge, one could be ever mindful of the contrast between Compliance Excellence and Contextual Excellence.   While Compliance Excellence offers advantages when the independence of counting things, from miles to hours to apples to red beads, is essential, Contextual Excellence provides utility in the ultimate use of interdependent parts, components, and tasks.   From building rocket engines to operating a city government, what opportunities for “snap fit” integration could be revealed by shifting one’s excellence focus from Compliance Excellence to Contextual Excellence, all the while relying on Compliance Excellence where it serves a most useful purpose?

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