Their pictures line the walls in the plants -- senior citizens, babies, even members of the employees' families.
"It's not too hard to understand who our customers are and the role we play in making it right for them," says James Hughes, divisional vice president for the company's Quality Center of Excellence for Nutritionals. "It's not like a light bulb doesn't work and you take it back. Our products are expected to work every time somebody uses them."
Quality, then, becomes the focus of Ross, a division of Abbott Laboratories that makes adult and infant nutritional formulas such as Ensure, Similac and Isomil.
"We measure quality in about 50 different ways," Hughes says.
From an Abbott-wide focus on consistency in quality to measuring and evaluating every minute detail of production, Ross' commitment has paid off.
For example, Hughes says, Ross receives tens of thousands of lots of supplies and raw materials from vendors in a year.
"Less than 2 percent of all the lots we get in the world have a problem where we wouldn't accept it," he says.
By constantly measuring production systems, Ross has reduced the chances of having variances outside process control limits by 76 percent.
"If you do it right the first time and reduce concerns out there, that reduces costs. You don't have to rework product, throw it away and get returns (from customers)," Hughes says. "People will say having the highest possible quality will cost you money, and we say having the highest possible quality will save you money."
To reach such success, Hughes says, Ross must ensure quality in every aspect of the company: management, employees, production and customers.
"You have to have an organizational commitment to quality," Hughes says. "In general, that's just where everyone in the organization from top to bottom believes that quality is a key business strategy and thinks it's necessary for the success of the business."
In 1999, Abbott executives decided to centralize the company's quality functions. All seven of its divisions had quality structures and processes, but by creating a new corporate Quality Center of Excellence, the company could create initiatives to specialize in regulating quality in its three global lines of business: pharmaceuticals, medical devices and nutritional products.
Continuous training and employee involvement ensure quality through all facets of the organization.
"When someone asks, 'How many people do you have in your quality group?' I'm tempted to say 5,000 -- that's everybody in the company," Hughes says, adding that it takes well-trained, well-informed and well-motivated people to maintain quality.
"You've got to have a lot of eyes and ears out there to make sure if something does get caught, it's caught on the line and you fix it there," he says.
Employees were even involved in a contest to determine a slogan for the company's dedication to quality. Some 450 suggestions were made. The winner, "Quality is the cornerstone to excellence," came from an employee at the Alta Vista, Va., manufacturing facility and is now used on company stationery.
The company offers recognition, awards and gift certificates -- anywhere from $50 to a couple hundred dollars -- to employees for quality initiatives.
"The sophistication that goes into our products and processes is for most people mind-boggling," Hughes says.
Ross conducts thousands of quality checks throughout the manufacturing process, done not just by quality center employees but by workers in the production plants.
Not only do you have to have tools to ensure quality, but you must measure the results to find out how you're doing, Hughes says.
Quality starts, of course, with the raw product, so Ross has a vendor certification process.
"We're very, very quality conscious to the point where people say it's tough doing business with us based on how tight we have our specifications," Hughes says.
Vendors, however, understand the importance of such strict rules, which include testing and regular routine audits of their facilities.
Greg Warner, senior vice president of research and development for St. Louis-based DuPont Protein Technologies International Inc., says in the more than 30 years his company has been a supplier for Ross, it has had to demonstrate its ability to deliver reliable, dependable soy protein on a consistent basis.
"Consumer products offered by Ross, including clinical nutrition and infant formula, are manufactured to some of the highest global standards," he says. "Because soy-based infant formula is used as the sole source of food for infants, what can be more important than getting that right?
"By focusing on achieving some of the highest quality infant formula ingredients, we were able to apply those lessons throughout our other soy protein applications through the years."
"Quality to our customers is basically trust," Hughes says, "because of the types of products we make. Our customers trust we're going to deliver those life-sustaining, life-saving products day in and day out."
The company prints an 800 number on its products so consumers can offer feedback and suggestions.
"If there's a problem out there, especially moms with kids, they're not bashful. They will call us," he says.
Common complaints, he says, used to be those regarding dented cans. As a result, the company developed plastic, recloseable containers.
Over the years, Ross has found, even as sales and production have increased, problems including returns from customers or discarded product due to mistakes have gone down.
"It wasn't always like that," he says. "If you increased your sales by X, your complaints were going to go up correspondingly."
Quality, Hughes says, must be incorporated into the culture of your organization.
"As much time and effort as we put into those areas, they can always be improved. That's the one thing you've got to realize, is it's a continuous improvement process itself," Hughes says of quality assurance. "You're never there." How to reach: James Hughes, Ross Products, 624-5441 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Greg Warner, DuPont Protein Technologies, (314) 982-3196 or email@example.com. For more information about quality and product development at Ross, visit www.ross.com and click on "Quality Assurance."
Joan Slattery Wall(firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.