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The Politics of Quality

By: Peter M. Friedman, CQA‎
Published October ‎14, ‎2017,


The Politics of Quality

Quality based on the Holy Grail

  • "Conformance to requirements",

  • "fitness for use",

  • "totality of features and characteristics of a product that bear on its ability to satisfy a         given need".


These are current definitions of quality based on the Holy Grail, total customer satisfaction. Why do we need to satisfy the customer? To stay in business of course. Nowhere is this concept more epitomized than with the problem Jack-in-the-Box restaurants had with tainted hamburger meat. Jack-in-the-Box served millions of hamburgers that didn't kill anyone or make anyone sick but that made no difference to their customers. Their business dropped 40% nationwide after the news media reported the problem. I frequent several fast-food restaurants in our area and I periodically witness employees picking up dropped food from the floor and putting it back on the tray, wiping their runny noses and then handling food, dropping drink cups and then using them, sneezing into food being handled, and employees exiting restrooms without washing their hands. Customers usually don't see things because they aren't lookin!..

Recently I was involved with a cargo airline that was very "customer" oriented. The customers were the shippers of cargo such as courier companies, banks, the Federal Reserve, and others interested in getting something somewhere in a hurry. Aviation operations, both cargo and passenger-carrying, are supposed to be regulated by the FAA. It would seem as though airlines have two customers, the ones paying and the Government regulating the way the aircraft are operated and maintained. An internal audit revealed that the only "customer" the airline was interested in serving was the bill-paying one. FAA regulations were secondary to flying aircraft. Records were routinely falsified, maintenance and inspections were shortcut or not performed at all. But, the airline was rated 99.9% reliable by its customers. The airline operations met the current "quality" criteria for total customer satisfaction. It grossed 10 to 12% before taxes! Everybody was happy with it, including the maintenance employees who were paid above the prevailing wage rate. The FAA left the airline alone because they appeared to have a good safety record, inspite of the fact that the regulations were not being followed which the FAA knew.

The FAA would conduct periodic audits during which they requested the airline to provide them with a sampling of maintenance records to review. These audits were skewed, of course, because the airline was allowed to choose which records would be inspected. There were certain record files that were "sanitized" just for these audits. Because the records appeared to be in order, the FAA never inspected the aircraft. The aircraft just kept getting worse and worse until they finally became unsafe to fly by regulatory standards. The pilots and maintenance personnel continued to operate and maintain them as best they could. As long as the records looked good, the problem was never addressed. After the quality audit, the problems revealed were brought to the attention of top management. The company President's reaction was one of dismay. He wanted to know why he should pay more attention and expense to the aircraft when they were merely an instrument of the service provided to the customer? The company wasn't in the aircraft business, they were in the transportation business and used the aircraft for this purpose alone. Further, the FAA didn't care because the company enjoyed a good overall safety record. Besides, the company was grossing 10-12% before taxes. How can you argue with this success as a quality professional? The customers were totally satisfied!  The customers were happy. The FAA was happy. The Controller was happy. The stockholders were happy. Only the quality personnel were not happy because the regulations weren't being followed!

Juran's Quality Control Handbook defines the word quality as consisting "...of those product features which meet the needs of customers and thereby provide product satisfaction." Juran goes on, "Quality consists of freedom from deficiencies." ASQC defines quality as, "The totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs."  "This airline routinely uses FAA certified repair stations to perform various repairs and alterations. As a part of the quality audit, several of these repair stations were inspected to determine whether the appropriate level of vendor surveillance was being implemented. In every case each repair station was making repairs without FAA approval of the repair or the data required to be used. Repair stations are required by federal regulation to adhere to an FAA approved quality manual. In 20% of the cases, the manual had never been approved. In 100% of the cases, the manual was not being followed. In each case the FAA had inspected the facility finding only minor recordkeeping deficiencies. Records at the airline revealed that nonconforming product was routinely received from these repair stations. However, no corrective action was ever implemented. In fact, the airline quality personnel were specifically precluded from having any communication with these repair stations by management so as not to interrupt "advantageous business relationships". Obviously, if the FAA accomplished their job in a more legitimate manner, this airline might have to comply with regulations. The lack of integrity by the FAA provides the best example for the airline's top management to circumvent compliance.

During 1990-1991 the FBI and DOD mounted the largest sting operation ever conducted targeting manufacturers and distributors of bogus and defective aircraft components. The results of this undercover investigation revealed a 78% average defect rate of all the material purchased over the 18-month period. In other words, an average of 78% of the aircraft replacement parts bought were nonconforming! These defects included using the wrong or inferior material, improper plating, thread deformities, and other defects rendering the parts unfit for use. United Airlines, American, TWA and most other carriers were all using these parts as were all of the airframe and component manufacturers. While the investigation only targeted fittings, fasteners and hose assemblies, there is no reason not to assume that this 78% average failure rate is prevalent throughout the industry.


A Government-sponsored program started about ten years ago, GIDEP (Government-Industry Data Exchange Program), compiles field failure data from the program's membership and disseminates this data to all members on a weekly basis. In each case the manufacturer of the defective product is afforded an opportunity to present their side of the issue to accompany the GIDEP. However, by the time the user has decided to issue a GIDEP they have tested and evaluated the defective material assuring that it indeed was defective. In most cases the producer either refuses to respond or answers with some story about having used a bad vendor, or having employee problems "and the responsible person has been terminated."

The membership of GIDEP is a cross-section of the aerospace and aviation industry ranging from the DOD, DOT and FAA at one extreme with many of the unscrupulous manufacturers and distributors at the other. The one cohesive factor is that all of the members share the same information. It is somewhat akin to providing prospective bank robbers with a Masterfile of bank floorplans! An interesting sidebar to the recent undercover investigation is that even though the FAA and DOD are GIDEP members, not one single GIDEP has been issued by them against any of the targeted companies which have already plead guilty. The reason may be that none of these components would have found their way into the DOD inventory had the government Quality Assurance Representatives done their job! In fact, in July 1989, the head of the Defense Contract Administration Services (DCAS) was quoted as stating that he knew of no instance where material "surplused" by the DOD found its way back into government inventory knowingly. All you have to do is follow the paperwork from the DOD surplus sales site back to each buyer. Anyone purchasing surplus material from the government is required to execute an End User certificate. In each case investigated, this certificate stipulated where these parts would be sold and to whom!

The 18-month undercover investigation should teach one important fact, everybody cheats! Since the government started the Voluntary Disclosure program so that CEO's might avoid criminal charges, some of the supposedly most reputable companies have come forward. Primes such as Voi-Shan Manufacturing and others have admitted falsifying test records, not accomplishing required testing, and supplying bogus documentation of conformance to purchasers such as airframe and engine manufacturers, and commercial airlines worldwide. In many cases companies offered to "manufacture" conformance documentation on the spot in order to make the sale. One distributor offered, unknowingly of course, to set up the Federal agents as representatives of the company, describing in detail how to properly falsify conformance documentation. All of this was recorded on audio and video tape for future prosecution.

Another facet of the undercover investigation targeted subcontractors providing machining, threading and finish plating services to these manufacturers and distributors. In each case investigated it was discovered that these subcontractors failed to exercise quality management, had no documented quality control system in place, and performed no final inspection prior to delivery. They did, however, furnish nicely printed certificates of conformance with each shipment attesting to compliance with specifications. These were not worth the paper they were printed on since laboratory tests revealed that the services provided did not comply. Parts were dimensionally incorrect, threads were nonconforming, and plating was incorrect or improperly applied.

What then are the politics of quality? Reality, based upon close inspection, reveals that the bottom line is king! Someone very wise once said, "Man can resist anything except temptation." Nowhere does this seem more apt than in quality management. Everyone in management is for quality except when it costs money. Juran and the other quality gurus are right when they say that quality is dictated by customer requirements. The problem is that nobody ever seems to tell the customer that the requirements will not be met! The famous English art critic, John Ruskin, said, "If you want fresh oats they come at a price. But if you are willing to take oats that have been through the horse once, they come a little cheaper."  The key here is being able to smell the difference between "fresh oats" and those that have already been through the horse. Unfortunately, most people never look at the material they buy. Inspectors receiving the material never get any training. All they do is look at the paperwork. When the part fails on the production line the installer throws it away and gets another one. When the parts fails in the field the repairman does the same thing. They never report the failures because it might make the inspectors look bad. Everybody wants job security.

The politics of quality is the reality of keeping people employed and stockholders happy with increasing profits. This is why you will rarely see anyone from quality management promoted to CEO. It is paradoxical in our society to put someone with absolute integrity in charge of the bottom line. If, in fact, Juran and his cohorts are right, "total customer satisfaction" is primary, then this theory makes perfect sense. Quality then is relative rather than being absolute. It is subjective instead of objective. Isn't that why there is MRB?  To go beyond conformance and rationalize nonconformance as relative to form, fit and function. Maybe the parts are okay after all? Maybe they really don't have to meet specification to be functional. Maybe we can use the parts "as is". But remember to give the part a new part number so it never gets used for the part it was meant to be!

The politics of quality must really mean that we need to get as close as we can to conformity. Nothing really needs to conform because we all know that everything is over-engineered. Parts 23 and 25 in the Federal Aviation Regulations for airframe manufacturing describe the conditions of safety that must be met. These conditions include a safety factor of 1.50% over minimum requirements. Anywhere in there might be okay unless the airframe is accidentally stressed to these maximum limits during flight. We would probably never know because there is a good chance the pilot won't report it because he might have to explain how he came to roll that 747 in the first place? Professor C. Northcote Parkinson, back in 1957, postulated that "Work expands so as to fill the time available for it's completion." A corollary to Parkinson's law relative to quality might be, "Quality is directly proportional to the amount of profit required and the degree of test or inspection to which the finished product will be subjected." This is the politics of quality.

The quality manager whose job is secure will be that person who is able to manage the politics of quality without a crisis. Somewhere between the cost of doing it right and the cost of doing it wrong is the happy medium. All of the rhetoric about supplier auditing and certification is nothing more than lipservice to a system that must be manipulated to enable a company to remain profitably in business. Business today cannot exist without the manipulation of quality. Why is it that when airlines get into financial trouble the first people to get canned are maintenance personnel? When the flight hours are not reduced you have to ask, "How can we continue to do the maintenance using less people? Could we have done it that way all the time?" Letting maintenance people go at an airline should raise a red flag to the FAA, if they were not asleep at the switch. Why was it that the FAA investigated the maintenance practices of both Eastern Airlines and Pan Am AFTER they were bankrupt? Why is it that FAA inspectors only work from 0700 to 1600? Do airlines stop flying when the FAA goes home? Why does the FAA announce audits months in advance? Because the FAA's mandate is to assure that the operator meets only the "current" level of compliance. This means that the FAA could care less about what was going on yesterday. They are only concerned with today. In fact, the FAA inspector's manual admonishes that anything more than six months old is a "stale complaint" and will not be prosecuted. If the FAA finds no smoking guns they assume that all is well. Further, the FAA has no statutory investigative authority. Probable cause to the FAA is a broken aircraft and dead bodies.

The politics of quality may extend to even greater lengths than we know. What if an airliner manufacturer decided that engineering a critical system in a position that had a potential for failure would cost far less than positioning this same system behind a spar where it might be safer in the event of an accident. For example, let's say that we could engineer part of the flight control system in the wings much more economically by placing it forward of the main spar, in fact, into the wing leading edge. It certainly would be far easier to maintain. How many airliners have been lost due to damage to a wing leading edge? Let's say, for example, that the engineering team used actuaries to forecast how many might be lost strictly to such a failure given the estimated total production quantity of about 300 aircraft. Let's say, for example, that the number was less than 1% over the projected service life of this fleet, perhaps just one aircraft. The politics of quality might well require looking at the economics of this engineering proposal versus the expense of additional safety [read quality]. If the savings were great enough would management be inclined to accept the risk? Remember, bottomline managers never come from the quality management environment. This is how The Space Shuttle Challenger accident happened. Could the loss of this single aircraft be considered part of "the cost of doing business"? In the politics of quality could there be, in fact, an acceptable death rate?

How do we change the politics of quality? It can't be changed in an atmosphere of free enterprise. Sadly, competition only fosters the politics of quality, especially where competitive bidding is involved using fixed-price contracting. Competitive bidding with fixed-price contracting relative to objective quality is a contradiction. The low bidder MUST cheat to win! If the specification is to be met corners must be cut if all other facets of the process are equal.

The politics of quality is different in Socialist environments such as the Soviet Union until it's dissolution a few years ago. Managers who got caught fudging were taken out behind the factory and shot! The quality problem wasn't in production; it was in engineering. In fact, the Soviet products met specifications regardless of how flawed the engineering. Remember, the true definition of quality, a la Crosby, is conformance to specification. Total customer satisfaction can be discounted by requiring the customer to define the quality requirements. This gets the quality community off the hook as long as the product conforms. Maybe the politics of quality can be changed for the better by holding the customer accountable more often. Inspection functions will then be more accountable to customers than company bottom lines. The inspector then works for the customer. Maybe all customers should start source inspecting? That certainly would improve outgoing quality. But then why does DOD get all the defective parts if they have QAR's source inspecting them at the contractor's plant?

The politics of quality usually changes as the result of a crisis. Somebody usually has to die. Nobody would have known that many initial DC10's were manufactured using DC8 floor supports unless there had been a problem with the cargo door. Nobody would have known that the DC10 with the DC8 supports failed every static test performed unless the accidents occurred. Nobody would have known that the FAA Western-Region Administrator had made a secret agreement with Douglas' President to use the DC8 supports which were clearly insufficient for the purpose had the accidents not occurred. Why did Douglas want to use the DC8 supports? Because they were sitting around unused but paid for due to the shutdown of the DC8 production line. The politics of quality turned into the economics of quality. Perhaps the hypothetical acceptable deathrate was brought to bear here? I do not believe that the politics of quality purports some nefarious conspiracy. I may be wrong, but I don't think so. I will hypothesize that companies who do things strictly by the book do not do well financially. I am constantly amazed when auditing and evaluating companies that have specific nonconforming product and corrective action procedures in place always have great difficulty producing documentation showing compliance. They never seem to reject anything! All of their suppliers are just perfect! Yet the products emanating from their facility are discovered to be nonconforming. It's really very simple - companies who do it right can't compete with companies who don't. Eventually the nonconforming companies drive the ethical companies out of the marketplace. Then you know who's left. The marketing people discovered long ago that objective quality doesn't guarantee longevity. I think that's where we are today, at least in aviation and aerospace. We don't get it right, but we come close. Close is apparently good enough for the current politics and it's as close as we are going to get in the near future without another crisis or a mass breakout of integrity...  

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