By acknowledging the real meaning of quality, determining basic requirements and coaching employees, companies can avoid a quality crisis.


Most companies have experienced products falling below customers’ expectations — a quality crisis of sorts. This happens suddenly and unexpectedly, and sets off a chain of events that can tear the very fabric that holds a company together. If this sounds dramatic, let me put it another way: When poor quality raises its ugly head, it triggers a very disruptive blame game that spreads throughout the company.

There are a million excuses given to explain why efforts to produce quality products fall short. Yet these excuses are but frail efforts to explain, tolerate or even forgive poor quality.

This month I want to go past the excuses and explore what is one of the most important management matters (and root cause) contributing to quality failures in our industry today — the lack of knowing and following the basic ABCs of quality. This is kindergarten stuff we should have learned and not forgotten — but that is not the case as some companies try to manage without using the quality tools they learned.

A: Acknowledge Quality

The first letter of the ABCs, in an effective quality management program, is to Acknowledge what the real meaning of quality is. Looking at the definition of quality can lead one astray, but nevertheless it is a worthwhile exercise. Two words found to describe quality in Webster were “excellence” and “superiority.” Another, more detailed definition was, “The degree of excellence which a thing possesses.” Hmmm, wonder what that means?

Who is going to determine what excellence in your business is, or how your product is superior? Moreover, who is going to determine what the degree of excellence must be in order to classify your wood products as those of quality? How will that degree of excellence be defined and quantified?

Oxford offered this definition: Quality is “the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind.” While this might offer bragging rights to some, it falls short of the understanding we, as manufacturers, need today.

The best definitions of quality that I have seen are from two gurus. The first is from Joseph Juran, who defines the quality of a wood product as its “fitness for use.” The second (and my favorite) definition is from Phillip Crosby: Quality is “conformance to requirements.” Both of these definitions point to the customer determining either the product’s fitness for use or the requirements that must be met by the item. Thus, the most important aspect of quality management is knowing and meeting your customers’ requirements.

Quality is a subjective term and often means different things in diverse businesses or industrial sectors, but the Crosby definition brings it to common ground. Your customers have expectations or requirements for your products or services, and unless you meet them, you will experience costly returns and service issues.

So, the “A” of the ABCs of quality is to Acknowledge that quality is conformance to your customer’s requirements.

B: Basic Requirements

Whatever your sector in the wood products industry, the “B” in ABC is that you must determine what your Basic (essential, fundamental and crucial) customer requirements are. Moreover, you must define and document them so others can understand them.

What issues are important to your customers? Are they finish, ease of drawer operation, simple assembly, durability, solid wood construction, short delivery times, courteous customer service representatives — or a combination of these and more?

Customer requirements must be defined so that employees can do their jobs correctly and thus meet expectations. This can be a difficult task and one that cannot be relegated to memory alone. I remember asking a plant manager once how he knew one of his cabinets was of high quality and his answer was, “I don’t know how to tell you, but I know it when I see it.” This may be easy for him, but not so for those working in the plant, who have decisions to make that will affect the quality of the product.

In our column last month we referenced the poor quality events that were being experienced in toy imports from China. Manufacturers in our industry have experienced quality issues with products made at home and abroad. In many cases, the specifications for meeting customer’s requirements simply do not exist.

If everyone in your company does not know what your customers’ expectations are, how can they produce a satisfactory product? It therefore behooves all companies to research their records and talk to their customers and sales representatives to learn the basic requirements that make up the “B” of the ABCs of quality management.

C: Coach Your Employees

Once you Acknowledge that a quality product meets your customers’ requirements, and then identify what those Basic requirements are, you are ready for the last of the ABCs of quality management — Coaching and training your employees on how to meet those requirements!

As strange as it may seem, this is where most companies fail. It seems that the cycle of what NOT to do is repeated in too many wood product companies.

• A poor quality event occurs

• Sales and management get upset

• Manufacturing gives excuses

• Quality Control documents the problem

• Department heads are informed and scolded

• Workers are scolded and told not to do it again

• Event records are filed

• Three months later, the same quality event occurs again

• The cycle repeats...

Seldom is there a conscious effort to get to the root cause and find a permanent solution that will prevent a repeat occurrence. Managers are often too busy not only to make the changes necessary in their plants, but to take the time to coach and train employees so they understand the ABCs. Likewise, it is difficult at best to communicate with offshore plants in China or Indonesia. They are halfway around the world and you are not there to coach and train. In addition, much is lost in navigating the language barrier that exists.

No company can become a world-class competitor if it does not make the effort to effectively coach and train all of its employees on the customers’ requirements for products or services — and how to meet them. Telling someone what you want is not enough. We all need to be shown how to make it work.

As management, you need to provide better instructions, jigs, fixtures, machinery, go-, no-go gauges — along with excellent coaching and training — so your employees are empowered to change and prevent poor quality events from happening in the first place.

Sometimes a customer will be unrealistic in his expectations and need coaching. In one case, a customer had to be coached and educated in the fact that wood will expand and contract across the grain and that two pieces of solid wood joined at 90 degrees to each other, sanded flush and painted white, would likely develop a hairline crack at the joint during normal use. The customer changed his expectations, accepted a design change and avoided a serious quality event.

Making the effort to use the ABCs of quality will drastically cut the cost of non value-added activities that are required to correct a quality event. Back up, get back to basics and then move forward with an effective quality management program.

Tom Dossenbach is the managing partner of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or e-mail Visit his Web site at Past Management Matters columns are archived on

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