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What ever happened to QUALITY? Featured

10:09am EDT July 22, 2002
We've all heard the terminology-total quality management, ISO 9000-and most of us by now buy into the philosophy that quality is important in the competitive global business environment of the 1990s, at least in theory. And most companies love to talk about it, willing and even proud to show customers their giant binders that document their quality efforts. But do they truly practice what they preach?

Many don't, according to Robert Marino, president and founder of Pleasant Hills-based Tri-Tech Services Inc. Call it a pet peeve or perhaps a passion, but quality and the processes developed to achieve it are Marino's life. His engineering consulting firm, which he launched 11 years ago from a broken-legged card table in his basement, focuses largely on quality issues as Marino and his staff of 50-plus employees preach such virtues that, he says, are often forgotten-especially during good economic times.

Like many of the region's engineers, Marino honed his skills-and passion-at Westinghouse Electric Corp., where he worked for more than 12 years at the Bettis Atomic Laboratory. Since launching his own company, he has managed to expand his services in quality, management processes and training into full-service offices into Greensboro, N.C., and Mishawaka, Ind., and he hopes to open a Western office in the near future.

In this month's One On One interview, Marino offers a clear and poignant wake-up call to the many manufacturers today who think they can maintain success without making quality a priority in every aspect of their businesses. And many such manufacturers do exist, he says, which easily could leave regions like Pittsburgh buried in the dust of its global competition. Here's what he says:

Define true quality in manufacturing and in business in general today.

True quality is reviewing and understanding and establishing standards of operation in all of the processes in business. That starts at order entry at the front door, through sales, through manufacturing and production, through inventory control, research and development, engineering, testing, shipping and receiving. It encompasses the entire process-all the processes that are involved in an operation. That's what quality should address, and that's what quality is all about.

If you miss any one of those processes, you're probably missing completing the circle.

Is that what standards such at ISO 9000 and total quality management encompass?

As a matter of fact, ISO 9000 was produced because there were God knows how many different standards that existed out there, so that any particular company would be audited in any year's time by as many as 20, 30, 40 different auditors representing different companies that all had different ideas about what that particular vendor's process should look like. So that becomes a giant headache when you're going through that too often in a year's time.

The ISO standard was something that was long overdue. It's an item that, finally, the European community sat down with the European common market and decided to create an industrial standard that would encompass all of the factors they felt were important to produce a consistent, good-quality product time after time. They created the ISO 9000 system.

The beauty of that system is that it has become broadly accepted internationally. So instead of companies being audited 30, 40, 50 times, if they can show their customers that they are, in fact, certified ISO in their systems, most of those audits disappear. Most people will accept the fact that you are ISO certified as representative of your commitment to producing goods and solid products.

Looking at TQM and ISO standards, how would you describe the state of quality today from a broad perspective in the United States?

Unfortunately what happens in the U.S. is kind of a strange circumstance. When the economy is really going well, as seems to be the case in our nation today, and profits are increasing substantially, one of the things that executives seem to do is cut back on their interest in quality-which seems strange. But what happens is that business is doing so well and order books are filled to the brim-they couldn't take any more orders if they had to-and, as a result, they start looking for increased ways to improve profitability. One of the things they cut out of the cost system is quality. They make a determination that everything is fine and that we don't need to spend this money. So they start dropping out of and putting aside all the systems that they had previously developed. And what happens is a very slow slide back to increased scrap ratios, increased customer problems and so on and so forth.

Is that more the exception than the rule or more the rule than the exception today?

In my observation, I think we see more of it than we should. Now when the economy is not very good and things are tough, business is tight and competition is high, now the reverse seems to take place. Now they start looking for ways to improve their product, ways to beat the competition, so that their order books get refilled. So now comes the influx of quality or the attention to it, which then creates a better product and produces it more efficiently, reduces the scrap ratios, and now the business starts rolling back again. We see this over and over again.

Do many companies simply use quality as window dressing and a sales tool without truly practicing it?

We have had clients who, upon entry into their business and talking to them about establishing quality systems, say to us, "Just get us a nice red, leather-bound book with all of the information in it, and we'll put it on the shelf here. That's really all we want. We don't really care about it, but we want to be able to show someone when they come into the business that, oh yes, we have quality, and we'll pull out the book and show them the book." But that's it, and it isn't real. It's too bad, but we see too much of that.

One particular company I can tell you about. As I talked to the president of the company, we were taking a tour of his facility. Through the tour I saw an area where there was quite a bit of scrap product. I asked him what kind of scrap ratios they had, and he said, "We run somewhere around 27 percent scrap ratio, 25 to 27 percent." And I said, do you realize that's enormously high? And he said, "Well, we're doing very well. Our order books are filled, our profitability is the highest ever-we're doing very well."

When we returned to his office, I made him an offer that we could reduce his scrap ratio, guaranteed, to at least 5 percent or less. His comment to me was, "Bob, look outside that window-do you see that car out there?" I said, do you mean the Mercedes? He said, "Yep, and it's brand new. I get one every six months. This business is doing better than it ever has. Profitability is so high, that I couldn't care less."

The offer I made to him was that, if you don't care, I'll tell you what. I will reduce your scrap ratio to at least 5 percent, and you give me the difference in profitability that you gain from that, and that'll be our fee. He laughed and said..."No." What can you do with that? We could have saved the man probably in the millions [of dollars].

How do you react to that?

Well, it's a shame. It's a shame. The reason it's a shame is that's really waste. That's terrible. That's waste. What he should have done is taken advantage of this, reduced that scrap ratio down, further increased his profitability, and if he didn't want the money, then invest it in doing things with other businesses or other opportunities to help growth and also provide jobs for people and provide better conditions in general. That's what the whole country is supposed to be about.

But from his perspective, he gets that Mercedes every six months, so why should he care? What do you tell him?

I guess that's kind of an attitude. It's one I don't believe in, and I don't subscribe to it. Truly, I didn't enter this business to get rich. Money is not a factor in what I'm trying to do. It's not a goal that drives Bob Marino. The things that drive me are that, if I can improve factories, if I can improve industrial activities to where they're operating more efficiently, they're operating smoother and job conditions for the people who are there are better as a result of consistent systems and guidelines for them to work under, I'm happy. Growth is created, new jobs have been produced, the country is doing very well, we're not allowing foreign competition to beat us back so that we're second, third or fourth class. I'm happy about that.

In this region specifically, do you see any prevalent trends regarding attention to quality, good, bad or indifferent?

I think the ISO system and QS system [quality program for the automobile manufacturing industry] have a tremendous opportunity to create gains in the field of professional quality far beyond anything that has ever been done in the past.

There was a time when all you had were inspectors. And those inspectors were people who had no formal education. They had really no understanding about the function at all. They were simply put into the position and told, here, go measure this.

As time has evolved and with the invention of quality assurance, there's been an upgrading. Now various credentials exist so that you have various standards that you're expected to meet, and you now find degreed individuals more and more in the field of quality so that you're getting a complete upgrade in the knowledge that's there. The whole field has improved from the standpoint of the expertise of the individuals who are in it.

But we're still faced with one problem, and this problem has been in existence since time one. If you show a company a coffee cup, the executive can look at it. He can touch it, he can feel it, he can hold it, he can see it, he can smell it. That's a tangible kind of item. Many times in the field of quality, he can't see anything, he can't feel anything, he can't touch anything, therefore he doesn't feel it has any value or any worth. So if he's paying a dollar for the coffee cup, he sees it. He's getting a coffee cup for a dollar. When a quality system is being put into play, the definition of that, what is he getting for that dollar, is a little less apparent. Quality is not quite so simple as producing a tangible product. That problem continues.

How is the attitude around Pittsburgh, relative to other regions?

The worst. When we look back at the history of Western Pennsylvania, it's a very old state in comparison to others. The culture of the area has always been, if you can't fix it with a five-pound sledge, you just take a 10-pound sledge. That has sort of been the culture we've had in this part of the country. We seem to be behind in a lot of things. We have an old Puritan type of heritage here, and it still continues today.

What would you say is the single worst shortcoming of local business owners when it comes to quality?

I think probably the biggest shortcoming is they won't listen. More often than not, you can't even get them to sit down and listen. They typically look for a very quick fix for a $1.98. If they get someone to walk in the door and do it for $1.98, and they can go talk about the fact that they're installing quality, they're happy. Whether they got anything for it doesn't seem to matter. It's "we can say now that we've adopted quality," and that's a problem here, no doubt about it.

What are some particular areas within their operations that reflect the worst quality problems?

I think the biggest issue is management. Very often we find that, what they think is going on in their factories and what is actually going on in their factories are two different things. When we get into the processes and we get into the research in establishing systems and return with information back to the management and we tell them this is how the procedure should be, they'll look at us and say, "No, that's not what we do, we do it this way." We then have to tell them, no that's not the way you're doing it. We've actually taken some management people out into their own factories said, here's how you're doing it. The result is they shake their heads and walk away. When we've had the opportunity to do that, we usually end up making a very solid client, as we've opened their eyes very dramatically with what we've uncovered.

So what does this say about these companies, where the management doesn't even understand the seriousness of this?

I think in many cases the management doesn't get right out on the floor-and I don't mean getting out on the floor just to walk through, wave at people, say hello and shake hands. I mean actually seeing and hearing what is really going on. It doesn't happen that often.

Identify the top four or five quality problems that companies face today.

After training, hiring practices is number two, and number three-not necessarily in any order-how they handle promotional activities [job promotions] within their companies. And then there's the transmission of information-communication. Number five is understanding their customers. Number six is general attention to their businesses.

Now, what are some possible solutions that companies can employ to improve their quality?

We might take these six items I just gave you and start with the first one. And that's training. What they should do is to adopt a standard training system where different employees involved in different jobs have some kind of standard training program that they have to go through and then, periodically, are measured against to assure that they are functioning in a consistent fashion.

The next one was promotional activities. Unfortunately, we find this occurring so many times it's appalling. There's a good-ol'-boy network out there, and if you happen to be a good friend or a good buddy of this guy and he's in the right position, you get promoted. Whether you're qualified for it or not, it doesn't matter. We see this in industry all across the country.

Feed that back into what we're talking about, and what does that translate into? You promote someone who is not as qualified, and you get a lesser-quality of job produced in that position. And you also discourage others and create morale problems-and those people almost give up because it seems like, no matter what they do they're not going to get it anyway, so then you end up with complacency in the job place. And there's a lot of that-an awful lot.

Communication is another item. Oftentimes, the people sitting in one particular facet of an operation will understand, recognize and know what it is they're looking for. But for whatever reason, that information never finds itself filtered through the entire system so that, somewhere along the line, the ball gets dropped and the rest of the people who also have a participation with this never really get the message. Sometimes months go by-sometimes years-before that message ever exists.

In understanding the customer, I think oftentimes, when products are purchased, the people who are selling those products don't have a good strong feel for what the customer really wants because the customer himself is not really sure what he wants. So what we find as we investigate their quality systems is that there will be products that are purchased, and they're totally wrong for the usage that they're intended for. And this is part of what comes out, believe it or not, in the design and development of quality systems. It's not that anybody is trying to snooker anybody. It's simply a communication error between what the customer wants and what the supplier is trying to supply.

When you talk general attention to business, I think, in many cases today, the people who sit at the top of companies have, for one reason or another, not really involved themselves in all aspects of the business . I'm talking about all aspects of the business, not just the aspect that you're most familiar with.

So that's something many more business leaders need to be doing today?

There's no question in my mind.

Now, how important are quality and quality standards going to be as we lead into the 21st century?

I think with all the other nations of the world developing and all the technology around the world increasing, the computer age where unbelievable amounts of information are available at the snap of a finger or at the punch of a key, which allows a lot of [underdeveloped] nations to get their hands on leading-edge information instantaneously, we're going to see a lot more competition. As that competition continues and we end up with more industrialized nations, we had better be sharper and sharper and sharper in this country, or we're going to find ourselves becoming second, third or fourth class.