Is Zero The Right Number or Not? The Zero Defect Arugment


Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” On the field, there are always going to be fumbles and dropped passes. The players are human, and humans are imperfect. Imperfection comes with the territory. It’s the price of admission to the human race. Does that mean we’ll never achieve zero defects on the shop floor? Is it even worth trying? Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s a debatable topic, so let’s start by agreeing that the days of inspecting widgets at the end of the production line for flaws and defects is a bad idea… a bad, costly idea. “Quality Assurance” inspections have gone by the wayside and well they should. It’s a costly way to do business. If you aren’t fixing the problems that are causing the defects, you are only working to keep your inspectors employed. And since those inspectors are human, there will be a few inspection mistakes as well… meaning that a defective widget ends up in the hands of your customer.

For some, the cost of achieving zero defects outweighs its benefit. They argue that a specified level of error is acceptable. For instance, 5.3 defective widgets per million is acceptable and that attempting to drive that number to zero increases the cost of production in both money and time, neither of which is acceptable to the customer. Diminishing return, they call it.

However, that argument fails to hold water when we apply it to something like health care. How many dropped babies constitute an acceptable error rate for nursery health care providers? That’s admittedly a Swiftian comparison, but you get the point.

We can all agree that reducing errors and eliminating variations and non-conformities is the path to improving quality. Doing a task correctly is only beneficial if it can be repeated correctly time and time again. That’s at the core of variation reduction. For companies that embrace zero defect thinking, conformance isn’t a goal, it’s a requirement and becomes part of the culture. Zero defect proponents argue that without that mindset, the goals of “process improvement” and “defect reduction” limit progress toward the real goal of perfection. Without a zero-defect culture, the answer to “how can we improve?” is typically answered by an easy fix rather than creating perfection.

On the other hand, W. Edwards Deming is quoted as saying, “No defects. No jobs. Absence of defects does not necessarily build business.” He also believed that zero defect thinking stifles and ignores innovation. Do we get so harnessed to achieving perfection that we fail to try something new? Even without defects, there can still be plenty of waste in the system such as wasted time, wasted motion. The goal of continuous improvement is just that – improvement. A focus on zero defects can put the blinders on those who might be best positioned to see a better way because they are locked into conformance.

So in the end, it seems Lombardi may have had the right answer to the argument. We may not achieve perfection, but we can achieve excellence by trying. No matter which side of the fence you may be on in this argument, we can agree that defect reduction (whether you establish an acceptable rate or drive it to zero) requires knowing your processes and measurements. Contact us to learn how the MPower system can provide the information and measurements you need in order to achieve excellence.