If everybody’s responsible for quality, the danger is that nobody will feel responsible.

Over the years, I have written extensively on the issue of quality in the workplace. Usually these articles produce similar responses. Most readers agree that quality, especially in the U.S., needs to improve. They may even agree that there is a quality crisis, but the responses have varied. Typically, most mention senior management’s role and their responsibility.

I just finished an article, which will appear in the October issue of Quality Magazine, about the major quality giants of the modern era. In this article, I write about someone who has had a lot to say on this subject, Dr. Armand V. Feigenbaum. This effort caused me to think about this issue again.

Dr. Feigenbaum, as well as other quality professionals, has been quoted as saying “quality is everyone’s job,” while others have maintained that management is responsible. So the question remains, “Just who is responsible for quality?” We offer the following thoughts with support from Dr Feigenbaum’s writings and David C. Crosby’s book, The Zero Defects Option.

Quality Flows From the Top Down
To start with, all actions and processes flow from the top down—money, direction, quality standards, performance standards, everything. Nothing flows until management turns the handle on the faucet. Of course, this also means that when the handle is turned the other way, things stop flowing. Quality is not a grassroots methodology. Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a noted quality guru, said, “Quality starts in the boardroom.” Therefore, quality also flows from the top, right out of the faucet.

When we say quality, we’re not talking about goodness. While the goodness standard also flows from the boss, we won’t discuss it here. We’re talking about a product or service that meets one of the definitions for quality as put forth by the American Society for Quality (ASQ) or many of the quality giants like Feigenbaum, Deming or Crosby—free of defects, or zero defects, or a product or service free of deficiencies.

As stated earlier, one of the sayings first attributed to Dr. Feigenbaum—“Quality is everybody’s job”—or any of the hundreds of other variations, has been taken out of context because his message is incomplete.

A photograph in Life magazine many years ago (when I was much younger) has remained stuck in my brain. In it, three professional baseball players are looking down at a baseball lying on the ground between them. It was somebody’s responsibility to catch that ball. They all went after it, but nobody caught it.

What many don’t realize is that Feigenbaum intended his concept, “Quality is everybody’s job,” to be about establishing accountability for quality. Because quality is everybody’s job, it may become nobody’s job! The idea is that quality must be actively managed and have visibility at the highest levels of management. Remember Freddie Prinze, the actor and stand-up comedian? He made a good living with the line, “It’s not my job.” The manager or the person doing a job can’t say that.

A big part of Crosby’s Zero Defects concept is that people perform to the standard that is set or accepted by their manager. People spend a lot of time, thought and energy trying to figure out what will please (or displease) their manager. Those of you with a manager know exactly what he or she stands for or will put up with. If you’re the manager and the product has problems, it’s your fault because, as Dr. Deming theorized, management owns 94 percent of all the problems. However, everyone played a part in the defective product reaching the customer.

Everyone has a boss or someone they report to. There are senior bosses and supervisors throughout the food chain. Everybody has a boss, even me—you’re my boss since I report to my customers and serve at your request. The CEO reports to the board of directors, which report to the stockholders. The CEO probably has 10 to 15 direct reports who march to his or her drumbeat.

Meanwhile, Jerry, the machinist, probably knows that there is a CEO, and may even know his or her name. But his salary, working hours and other benefits come from Tim—his supervisor. Jerry doesn’t see the CEO as his leader. Tim is the only leader that Jerry thinks about and tries to please. Although the CEO shares the responsibility for quality with Tim and Jerry, the CEO’s portion doesn’t get any smaller. And although Tim shares the responsibility with Jerry, Tim’s portion doesn’t get smaller, either.

A Message for All Leaders
According to former U.S. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, “Responsibility is a unique concept; it can only reside and inhere within a single individual. You may delegate it, but it is still with you. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may disclaim it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it. If the responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else.”

That’s a powerful thought. All leaders should have that message carved into their desktops. The CEO shares the responsibility for quality with the rest of the leaders in the organization, right on down to Tim, Jerry’s boss. Jerry, of course, is responsible for doing his job right, using the process that was handed to him and even watching out for work previously performed. If the process is incapable of meeting the requirement, Jerry must alert Tim, who is responsible for correcting the situation. If Tim doesn’t do his job right, and a defective product gets out, he, the CEO and all other layers of management must share the ultimate responsibility.

Unfortunately, many managers (at all levels) don’t seem to understand their responsibility for quality. We’ve all heard managers blame “those people,” meaning the workers, for less than desirable quality. These managers don’t understand how quality happens—that he or she owns 94 percent of the blame or responsibility. This type of manager screams, “How the heck did that get out?” when the customer complains.

Every time the “responsibility” issue comes up, think about that baseball lying on the ground. Everybody’s business can easily become nobody’s business, and the game is lost! iBi