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Putting meaning into the Q word

Jun 1, 2004 12:00 AM

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The results of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award are now little more than a sidebar in business publications. Word is that the sponsors have difficulty persuading companies to enter the competition.

The Malcolm Baldrige Award had its roots in the national frenzy surrounding Japanese management methods and the pressure on U.S. companies to compete more effectively. Fortune 500 firms literally spent millions of dollars preparing award entries. It was a big deal.

What happened? Like any competition, the Malcolm Baldrige Award had its critics from day one. Some claimed that the judging failed to sufficiently weigh innovation. Others, including yours truly, believed that it was most appropriate for manufacturers of stock items, where “quality” is embodied in the product.

Let customers determine quality

The Baldrige Award lost a great deal of credibility in 1990 when General Motors' Cadillac division was pronounced a winner. At the time, Cadillac was losing market share and failed to distinguish itself in customer-satisfaction ratings — Lexus, Infiniti and other competitors had come on strong. The lesson is that customers, not manufacturers or engineers, define “quality.”

This notion is certainly relevant to the graphic-arts industry, although some are reluctant to admit it. For instance, some printers criticize the buying community for not having an appreciation of fine printing. “Good-enough printing” is a pejorative term in print-manufacturing circles — but it's a perfectly understandable concept among buyers with budget constraints who are trying to get the most bang for their buck.

I continue to tour companies with quality-assurance departments staffed by personnel who rarely have direct customer contact and have no idea about the use of the product they are charged with approving. I'm reminded of a printing company CEO who, enamored of Japanese management methods, established a room in which charts covered the walls, measuring every imaginable aspect of his plant's manufacturing process. During a tour with one of his largest customers, the CEO stood at the entrance of this room and proudly declared, “With our quality procedures, I not only know what's in the samples, but I also know what's in the cartons.” The buyer replied, “I'm happy for you, but I don't happen to like what's in the cartons.”

Beyond job specs

My experience is that most printers will agree that the customer defines quality and that quality involves much more than production of a tangible product. The majority of graphic-arts companies, however, don't provide a systematic vehicle for customers to communicate their needs and expectations to the salesperson beyond the quantifiable job specifications on the request-for-estimate form and the job jacket.

Job-related instructions are only as good as the ability of the least-competent employee — on the third shift — to understand them. On a more global level, every company, regardless of size, product specialty or geographical location, places itself in unnecessary jeopardy when it eschews research while claiming to understand the perceptions and needs of its customers. Buyer attitudes, needs and motives, after all, are constantly changing.

Demand specific explanations

A good point at which to begin the process of soliciting customers' definition of the “Q” word is, ironically, to actively discourage its use by both customers and your own staff. Instead, demand specific explanations. Don't make the fatal mistake of assuming that quality is defined solely in terms of product attributes. Suppliers win and lose accounts every day because of invoicing, sampling, telephone demeanor, hours of operation, estimating and a host of other activities not directly related to the manufacture of the printed product.

Let's face it, every print company has shipped jobs it was not proud of, only to find the customer euphoric about it. Conversely, every print company has processed work convinced that its performance was unexcelled, only to have the customer find fault with it. Customer perception is reality. Judges of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award learned that lesson the hard way.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. Write to him at