By Anant Gupta
Have you ever wondered why products of big companies are almost defect-free? Why a small glitch in a smartphone or a faint rumble in the car engine sends irate customers into fury? It all boils down to a single word – quality. Quality, or more precisely quality control, is a critical aspect considered when designing a product.
In general, the American Society of Quality defines quality as “quality of products or services whose measurable characteristics satisfy a fixed set of specifications that are usually numerically defined”. Going by this definition, various standards have emerged which quantify the quality of a product. One highly regarded quality measurement standard is Six Sigma quality. A product is within six sigma specifications when there is fewer than 3.4 defects per million opportunities. Such rigorous quality control has been possible due to the efforts of a multitude of quality control experts, foremost among whom is Kaoru Ishikawa – the pioneer of quality control and several concepts related to it.
The formation of Quality Circles
After the Second World War, Japan entered a period of stable economic growth in the 1950s. However, the Japanese industry was still in doldrums and its products were of miserable quality. Inspired by quality guru W. Deming, Ishikawa implemented his teachings to improve the quality of Japanese products. With rigorous quality control methods, Ishikawa’s famed kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement, and simplistic techniques, Japan achieved dominance in the industrial world within a decade.
Buoyed by his success, Ishikawa replicated the same in the manufacturing industry. Inspired by the rise of manufacturing giants, especially Toyota, frontline workers showed an overwhelming response towards quality control and demanded more trainings on the same. Ishikawa responded by launching a new magazine on quality control titled ‘Gezba and QC’ and acting as its first editor in chief in 1962. It was in this magazine, that he left a priceless message for frontline workers and their supervisors – “I would like you to form a group to study QC as a teaching material of magazines “. Enthusiastic workers paid heed to his advice, and formed groups to learn QC techniques from their supervisor or senior. This led to the beginning of Quality Circle.
A Quality Circle is a small group consisting of first-line employees who continually improve and control the quality of their network, products and services. The benefits of a Quality Circle are twofold. First, it helps employees to sort out problems and quality issues among themselves, by leveraging each other’s knowledge. Secondly, it instills self-worth and increases confidence in the worker, since they would directly contribute towards problem-solving and making decisions. The latter had a much more profound impact in the Japanese corporate culture. With improvement in relationship between the employee and his supervisor, a culture of friendliness percolated the Japanese corporate culture.
The dictum of Kaizen
Ishikawa embedded the concept of Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement, in Japan’s corporate world. He encouraged all employees, from the janitor to the CEO, to think of small ideas which could be implemented on the same day. Through this, he defeated the time lag associated with lengthy improvements and counted upon small daily victories to result in a large process improvement. Ishikawa also discovered that except for frontline workers – who interacted directly with the client, the rest of the employees faced great confusion over the customer they actually serve. Ishikawa had a simple solution to this problem. He believed every employee should feel “the next process is the customer”. This means the next person affected by your work is the end customer. As an example, for a data entry operator, a data analyst utilizing the data is the customer. For the analyst, the management making decisions based on the analysis is their customer. Any incorrect data entry will directly affect the analysis of data, which has chances of wrongly impacting the management’s decision. Hence, treating the next person in line as the end customer inspired employees to leave no stone unturned in delivering their work in the best manner possible.
About the Ishikawa fishbone diagram
One of Ishikawa’s most famous and well-known contribution to quality control is the fishbone diagram.The Fishbone Diagram: Ishikawa’s contribution to Quality Control
The fishbone diagram is a ‘cause-effect’ diagram which lists various causes for a possible effect. The effect is represented on the tip of a straight horizontal line (the fish head). The causes are represented by lines branching out of the straight line (the fish bones). Each cause is further drilled down to sub-causes. The trick is to keep on asking “Why does this happen?” and writing down all possible reasons for a single cause. The activity is repeated till all possible causes have been listed. After that, the management can plot the frequency of occurrence of each cause using another quality tool, the Pareto chart, to determine the major factor responsible for the effect.
The fishbone diagram became immensely popular because of its simplicity and usefulness. Instead of randomly trying to ascertain reasons for some failure, the workers or management could brainstorm all possible reasons and pinpoint to the exact cause. Also, its effect was not limited to the single issue at hand. Any process responsible for the cause would be investigated companywide, thus mitigating any future risks due to the same process. Hence, highlighting all causes on a single canvas provided an opportunity to keep a tab on the entire process, especially areas which could malfunction and result in risk to the company.
Impact of Ishikawa on the modern world
Ishikawa’s core findings have survived the test of time, even in such a rapidly changing world as ours. The fishbone diagram is considered one of the 7 basic quality control tools, and is widely used in factories globally. Quality Circles, though not as popular as they were in 1980s, still hold importance in the manufacturing sector. As of December 2014, 5.5 million people are part of some Quality Circle in over 70 countries. This figure reflects the actual impact Ishikawa had on an entire sector. Quality Circle has further led to the open door policy, circular hierarchy and friendly corporate environments, thus producing happier and more effective employees. Finally, Japanese dominance in the industrial world is virtually an ode to Ishikawa and his relentless pursuit of top quality.
In the end, it is the customer who owes a little something to the man behind top-quality products – Kaoru Ishikawa.
Anant Gupta is a writing analyst at Qrius
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