Not long ago, I had a conversation with a senior quality manager at a large manufacturing operation about the future of the quality profession. There has been a lot of speculation from many learned professionals, but…there is no definite answer because no one has a crystal ball. Nevertheless, a transformation is definitely underway.

Many quality professionals have been engaged for the last few years to help combine Six Sigma and lean initiatives. Historically, we know that programs evolve after a few years, so we continually find ourselves asking, “What happens after Six Sigma and lean?”

Even though lean manufacturing drives companies to many good things, lean, by itself, cannot correct all the problems facing businesses. At least in the near future, U.S. companies cannot be lean enough to offset the low-cost labor markets in other parts of the world.

The problem of market share is not due entirely to labor costs. Market share is a combination of cost and value, but the broader issue is that of quality. “As delivered quality” (quality delivered to a customer) is certainly important, but long-term reliability may be the primary differentiator for customer retention. It’s not the small percentage of non-conforming components that are found during the manufacturing and assembly processes, but the good parts that fail before the customer is through using them that cause high levels of dissatisfaction. The problem seems to rest with reliability, which is more related to design. Once the product is in the hands of the end-customer, there is an expectation of uninterrupted use.

When thinking about this, and related quality issues, I am reminded of something I learned many years ago. As an athlete playing multiple sports, our teams did not have many outstanding players; but we consistently were victorious against much more talented teams. Why? The answer was multifaceted but we certainly had coaches who were wise about using the talent they had inherited.

Ted Panish, a member of Bradley University’s Famous Five basketball teams, and Corwin Clatt, a former Chicago Cardinals’ NFL player in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, were sticklers for detail and the fundamentals of their sports. They constantly drilled their players on the finer points of the sport by making us practice “blocking and tackling” until we could execute those skills in our sleep. They were tough coaches, but, in the end, their teams were winners through players working together to achieve a common goal.

The way “blocking and tackling” was done in the old days may not be the same as it is today (and certainly, the coaching style has changed). It is, however, about knowing what must be done and performing it with discipline until results are correct.

How does this relate to manufacturing quality and where we need to go from here? U.S. businesses must consider a couple things if they are to return to the levels of customer satisfaction that will entice people to purchase their products and services.

The first is to return to the basics, getting back to the rigor of doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason. It seems so simple, but many companies continue to overlook this fundamental principle. Process excellence is about rigor and discipline in execution and not compromising product integrity.

The second is to strive for strength of quality product and process design, followed by stringent validation of designs before implementation. There are far too many products rushed to market before being fully validated. This causes costly engineering changes to correct design issues after the product has been released to manufacturing. These changes drive costs up, cut profit margins, and have the potential to further compound quality problems that negatively affect customer satisfaction.

From my perspective, business leaders should encourage their design engineers to become members of American Society for Quality (ASQ) and certify as quality and reliability engineers as well as Six Sigma black belts. The engineers (and their management) need to learn how to use the tools and approaches set forth for total quality management.

We must stop firefighting and design “fire resistant” products and processes. Success is found by knowing what the goal is, how to get there, and executing with rigor and discipline. We need to become proactive, and stop being reactive. By getting back to the basics, it is possible to reduce the number of engineering changes that could be the next effective approach to becoming “lean.”