Quality: A Strategic State of Mind

 

Satisfying customers begins with understanding exactly what they want.

 

BY TOM DOSSENBACH

 


Quality. What comes to mind when you see or hear this word? How important is it in your scheme of things? Perhaps even more important, how good at monitoring and attaining quality goals are those who work with you?

This month, I would like to guide you through an exercise to help you see how you look at and think about quality. Hopefully, as a result, you will be better prepared to help your company succeed in meeting increasingly stiffer competition -- both from here and abroad.

The first vision that we have of quality is usually the way a product looks and performs. However, this is still thinking "inside the box." When you really get down to basics, quality is a state of mind. Of course it is your state of mind, but it is also your customers' state of mind! If you are able to achieve a deliberate, strategic meeting of these minds, then you have the winning formula for quality. After all, logic dictates that if you and your customer can agree on the same criteria that comprise the desired level of quality, then you have the makings of a roadmap for implementing a quality standard that can guide all of your plant's affected operations.

The main point I want to stress is that care should be taken not to ever lose sight of the customer's needs and desires. For example, just because your company has been making wooden widgets for 50 years does not necessarily mean that you know exactly what the customer wants if you don't take the time to ask. Assuming that you know more about your customer's needs and wants is not only arrogant, it's plain ignorant.

On the other hand, if you enter into discussions with your customer under the premise that you want to learn exactly what he wants, then you are in a better position to guide him to what he needs by virtue of your experience. Integral to these discussions is asking your customer to define what "quality" is to him. Your ability to meet or exceed his perception of quality will go a long way toward determining your future business relationship and possibly dozens or hundreds of potential customers who they may influence.

Protecting Your Turf from Imports

Quality Questions to Ponder

What is your state of mind when it comes to meeting your customers' quality goals? Here are a few points to consider.

 

  • Do you try to manufacture products that will make your customers happy or products that suit your needs?
  • Do you and your company know what your customers really want?
  • Does your company try to stay on top of changing requirements?
  • Have you analyzed all customer complaints and requests for service for the past year?
  • Have you asked customers for their input lately?
  • Do your employees in the factory know what your customers expect?
  • Have you trained your employees on to build products that will live up to the customer's quality standards?
  • When was the last time you visited one of your customers who was having a problem?

 On every continent, right at this very moment, there is someone trying to figure out what your customers are looking for and how to give it to them better and cheaper than you do. These developing countries are using sophisticated means to find out how well you are satisfying these desires. If you display an obvious weakness, you are vulnerable to losing customers to them. If you decide to do nothing, then you have made the decision to give up customers.

If apathy is your attitude, then you might as well concede that you are providing foreign aid to these companies by handing over some of your customers to them — free, with no strings attached!

Odds are, you do not want to give away your customers without a fight. But the fact is, if your state of mind on quality is out of sync with your customer's state of mind, your products cannot help but be of poor quality in his eyes. It really does not matter whether you are manufacturing furniture, millwork, kitchen cabinets, fenestration products or any other product, you are obligated to find out exactly what the customer is looking for in products and services and adopt that viewpoint as your own.

A Vicious Quality Circle

Let me share an example of a common quality problem that until recently has been ignored by much of the millwork and the new home construction industries. As you will see, this is a direct result of not being in the same state of mind as the customer -- in this case the homeowner.

A millwork manufacturer I did some consulting for makes a complete line of exterior doors among other items. It has a reputation of being the number one door manufacturer in the area. Most builders like to use this company's doors because they are easy to install and relatively inexpensive.

These doors, like most, have wooden door jambs. When installed, the jambs are supposedly caulked by the builder so moisture will not get under the sill or the jamb legs. Occasionally, however, after a season of shrinking and swelling, the caulk can crack allowing moisture to enter and soak into the jambs. The wood begins to rot and within a year or two you can stick your finger through the thin layer of paint veneer left behind where the wood has rotted away.

Are these doors of good quality? The manufacturer would say "yes" because they incorporate good materials and workmanship, and the doors meet all industry standards. However, the homeowner does not give a flip about standards and insists that the builder replace the door. The builder in turn tells the homeowner that the house is out of warranty and he should go to the manufacturer. The manufacturer tells the homeowner that installation methods and/or the lack of homeowner maintenance is the cause of allowing water to get into the wood, leading to the jambs to rot.

Not surprisingly, the homeowner goes ballistic. And who could blame him? What would you think of the quality if this was the entry door on your house? You probably wouldn't care whose fault it is as long as the problem is remedied.

During the past few years some home builders have emerged who now have the same state of mind as the home buyer. They know their customers do not want to worry about maintenance -- caulking, painting, etc. As a result, more builders are specifying maintenance-free doors, windows, trim and other products. Innovative millwork manufacturers, such as the one mentioned earlier, are listening and getting the same state of mind and have come up with door construction methods and new materials which will not rot! These builders and manufacturers are rapidly taking market share from their competitors who are scratching their heads and asking, "What happened?"

Passing the Buck

I was reminded of the above example by an article I read recently in Furniture Today, which summarizes interesting statistics obtained from a Quality Survey in the retail distribution chain. One thing that stands out is that while many retailers blame manufacturers for substandard products, the furniture manufacturers think that many of these quality problems stem to mishandling of the products by retailers, resulting in damaged merchandise.

At the very least, this survey underlines the notion that a serious gap exists between the state of mind of the furniture manufacturer and the state of mind of the retailer. This gap can only widen unless this challenge is met head on.

I suggest that you, the product manufacturer, make the first move. You have the power to make an impact on the relationship you have with your customers. The future success of your company rests in your willingness to review your company's state of mind regarding quality and then encouraging others to do the same. Don't wait for your competitor to beat you to the punch. You can go a long way to ensure the future of your company during the next decade.

                                                                                     

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.