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Businesses must provide what the customer wants, not what the company wants.

That was the message of two experts who addressed Utah State University's two-day Productivity Seminar this week.A total commitment to quality is the only way American companies can compete with the Japanese and other emerging industrial countries, said Arman Feigenbaum, a man Fortune magazine calls one of the four quality gurus in the United States. Feigenbaum originated Total Quality Control, and his company has helped many U.S. industrial companies stay on top of competitive world markets.

"Quality cannot be a department in a company but must be a systemic function that all employees are part of," Feigenbaum said. "Implementing quality doesn't depend on geography or culture or nationality. What makes it work is a clear, customer-oriented approach."

People who have been with an American company for a number of years can talk about lots of quality improvement crusades, according to Fei-genbaum. But he said those programs are based on sloganeering and single-sentence improvement programs with very little follow-up.

"You could ask the chief executive officers of most U.S. companies how they got to the top and you'd need Mount Palomar observatory to find any who took the quality route," he said.

David Halberstam, author of "The Reckoning," a book that details the rise of Japanese industrial power and the decline of American industrial might through two automobile manufacturers, agreed with Feigenbaum on several counts.

"For too long in too many American companies the financial people were beating down the creative people," said Halberstam.

"No one was asking what the customer wanted. They thought the real customers were the stockholders and not the people who buy cars. They were taking quality out in order to save money. Approaches to quality have not been real. We need less sloganeering and more truth."

Feigenbaum said that today quality represents the single most attractive return on investment.

"Our experience demonstrates that return on quality programs is good that results have come from a genuine quality approach," Feigenbaum said. "The only way you can penetrate strong markets is with quality and there is no better way to improve productivity."

Both speakers said the United States can meet the challenge.

Feigenbaum said he believes the nation has extremely the potential to realize industrial leadership.

"Look around and you see a lot of foreign automobiles in people's driveways," he said. "Look in their kitchens and you see a U.S.-built refrigerator. Japanese companies have not been able to touch us in that industry because we build a better product. We must re-ignite an explosion of quality throughout industry."

Halberstam said Japanese business managers are not better than U.S. managers but they have a system and they've made a covenant to be part of it.

"The Japanese have worked harder than we have, and they've saved more money," Halberstam said. "They've been better Calvinists and Puritans with the work ethic.

"We sit around wondering who has done this to us. The person who has been shooting off our toes is us. We need to look at ourselves to understand what is happening."