Among the gush of commentary after Steve Jobs' death, two things stood out. One, his insight that you can't create great products or services using focus groups — that customers don't know what they want until they see it. Second, his relentless focus on quality: "Be a yardstick of quality," he said. "Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected."
Defining exactly what amounts to expecting excellence, of course, is the trick.
One of the things I reread at least once a year is an article that appeared more than 20 years ago in the Harvard Business Review. The authors, Genichi Taguchi and Don Clausing, wrote about manufacturing processes and how to build "robust" products — goods that perform reliably in a range of conditions.
In the article, Taguchi and Clausing relate an anecdote about Mazda and Ford (which has owned a major share of the Japanese automaker for years). In the 1980s, Ford asked Mazda to build transmissions for a car Ford was selling in the U.S. Mazda, in Japan, used the same specifications for the transmission parts as Ford, which continued to build the transmissions at one of its U.S. plants.
Over time, however, the Ford-built transmissions generated a lot more complaints from customers and much higher warranty costs.
To find out why, Ford took apart several transmissions it had made along with several that Mazda had made. Specifications for parts typically allow for slight imperfections; drive shafts that are supposed to be 10 centimeters in diameter aren't considered defective if they come in either slightly too large or too small by some specified amount — a 9.998-centimeter drive shaft, for example, isn't considered "out of spec."
Ford found that almost all the parts in the transmissions from both its factory and Mazda's fell within the defined tolerances. The difference? While individual parts built by Ford fell somewhere within specs, the Mazda-built parts were almost all exactly on target.
The higher warranty costs and customer dissatisfaction with the Ford transmissions, Ford concluded, came because all the slight imperfections in its transmission parts — though insignificant individually— combined to "stack up" and create bigger problems.
The lesson: Ford managers looked at individual parts in a pass-fail way in terms of whether they met the specs. "Mazda managers," the authors wrote, "worked on the assumption that robustness begins from meeting exact targets consistently — not from always staying within tolerances."
The dangers of viewing quality in terms of acceptable tolerances, the authors wrote, is that managers "grow accustomed to thinking about product quality in terms of acceptable deviation from targets — instead of the consistent effort to hit them." The warranty costs and customer dissatisfaction were, of course, much more costly to Ford than whatever it would have cost at the factory to meet the targets exactly.
It has always seemed to me that the Taguchi-Clausing article offered lessons for many endeavors, not just manufacturing. In my work, for example, I've become more conscious, as I edit or write, to try to find exactly the right word, the right sentence, to communicate most effectively. When I find imprecise word usage and sketchy syntax scattered throughout a publication, my estimation of its quality falls, however good it may otherwise be.
More broadly, many of the problems and issues I see playing out around the state seem often to result from a tolerance for second rate — a shoulder shrug that a particular status quo is "good enough" for Florida. So the state's universities are mediocre? Well, at least they're cheap.
More and more, however, I think Florida is raising its expectations, in ways large and small. Jeb Bush effectively jolted the state's K-12 education system by expecting more from schools that made excuses for failing to teach children from challenging backgrounds. Another example, this one local: George Mikitarian, president and CEO of Parrish Medical Center, a 210-bed community hospital in Titusville, once told me that when he took over and began to raise expectations about standards of care, a doctor took him aside and essentially advised him not to aim so high, with the excuse that "we're just a community hospital."
Mikitarian has built Parrish into a gem of a facility that ranks among the top 10% in the country in quality of care across a range of medical disciplines. In large measure, he did it by insisting that his community hospital — it hasn't accepted tax money for more than 16 years, by the way — could — and should — expect excellence.
The best communities and businesses always do. I'll give Jobs the last word: "We don't get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. ... And we've all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it."
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