100% Quality Service Standards


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What's your agency's standard for quality? It seems unrealistic to expect quality standards of 100% . . . after all, nobody's perfect. Wouldn't life be a lot easier and less stressful if everyone accepted a certain amount of predictable human frailty and built in a margin for error? It could even be called something impressive and positive sounding-'acceptable quality level,' for example.

But as too many American businesses have learned, the idea of an 'acceptable' level of mistakes, errors, waste, spoilage-and consequently a corresponding level of disgruntled customers-is a trap that can lure an otherwise well-meaning company into the kind of corporate quicksand where size and strength can become a liability instead of an advantage.

The only acceptable quality level, say those who have been charting a course back to competitive excellence, is 100%. That's the standard of measurement. The rationale is simple: Set a standard at 95%, and people figure they're doing fine as long as they're at or near it. In the language of the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award, however, quality is a 'race with no finish line.' There's no time of day or month on the calendar when it's okay to let up.

The alternative to setting standards at the highest quality level becomes clearer when you look at the consequences of the 'almost but not quite' school of thought. If 99.9% is good enough, then . . .

  • Two million documents will be lost by the IRS this year.
  • 811,000 faulty rolls of 35mm film will be loaded this year.
  • 22,000 checks will be deducted from the wrong bank accounts in the next 60 minutes.
  • 1,314 phone calls will be misplaced by telecommunication services every minute.
  • 12 babies will be given to the wrong parents each day.
  • 268,500 defective tires will be shipped this year.
  • 14,208 defective personal computers will be shipped this year.
  • 2,200 gallons of coffee assumed to be caffeinated will turn out to be decaf instead-but consumed nonetheless in just one tax firm during the 1991 tax season.
  • 103,260 income tax returns will be processed incorrectly this year.
  • 2,488,200 books will be shipped in the next 12 months with the wrong cover.
  • 5,517,200 cases of soft drinks produced in the next 12 months will be flatter than a bad tire.
  • Two plane landings daily at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago will be unsafe.
  • 3,056 copies of tomorrow's Wall Street Journal will be missing one of the three sections.
  • 18,322 pieces of mail will be mishandled in the next hour.
  • 291 pacemaker operations will be performed incorrectly this year.
  • 880,000 credit cards in circulation will turn out to have incorrect cardholder information on their magnetic strips.
  • $9,690 will be spent today, tomorrow, next Thursday, and every day in the future on defective, often unsafe sporting equipment.
  • 55 malfunctioning ATMs will be installed in the next 12 months.
  • 20,000 incorrect drug prescriptions will be written in the nest 12 months.
  • 114,500 mismatched pairs of shoes will be shipped this year.
  • $761,900 will be spent in the next 12 months on tapes and CDs that won't play.
  • 107 incorrect medical procedures will be performed by the end of the day today.
  • 315 entries in Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (unabridged) will turn out to be misspelled.

Incidentally, 99.9 percent accuracy would be a remarkable improvement in the context of current performance levels. For example:

  • A Hewlett-Packard study of 300,000 semiconductors from three American firms and three Japanese firms recently found the average failure rate of the American chips was more than 0.1 percent. The failure rate for the Japanese-made chips was zero.
  • The U.S. airline industry, despite reams of advertising about improved performance, reported last year that just 80% of its flights departed on time-and only 74% arrived on schedule. The airline industry also assumes 5% to 10% of all luggage will be mishandled and 3% of all checked baggage will be lost en route.
  • And don't look to the heavens for salvation: The Office of Technology Assessment recently published a report stating, 'Of the more than 20,000 objects fired into orbit since 1957, fewer than 5% remain operational.'


Natalie Gabel compiled this report while working as an intern for Training Special Projects. Reprinted with permission form the March 1991 issue of Training, The Magazine of Human Resources Development, copyright 1991, Lakewood Publications, Inc., Minneapolis, MN (612) 333-0471. All rights reserved.

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