Just a decade ago, U.S. businesses were crowing about the promise of new quality-improvement programs. Since then, the U.S. quality movement has altered and improved business practices, and many American companies have matched Japan's vaunted quality benchmarks. Industrial offices buzzed with phrases such as "total quality management (TQM)" and "six sigma accuracy." Such catchphrases are heard less frequently because they've been replaced by Internet jargon. And that raises a question: Where does quality stand in the Internet age?

Concerns about quality have by no means disappeared. Rather, at most successful companies, quality has become internalized, says quality consultant Joseph A. DeFeo, CEO of Juran Institute Inc. in Wilton, Conn. The special software and management practices associated with the movement are now in everyday use, he says, so quality has become less self-conscious. But it has reemerged as a critical issue because of the rapid development of Internet links among companies. Quality is no longer the concern of just a single factory but of whole supply chains. As companies outsource more of their work, they need to take increasing care to make sure their partners measure up on quality, says Michael J. Burkett, a senior analyst at Boston's AMR Research Inc., a manufacturing consultant.

This report explores the role of quality in today's increasingly networked world. The first section looks at how a unit of General Electric Co. is blazing new quality trails in a field it helped pioneer. The second lifts the lid on efforts by Mexico's manufacturers to meet the quality demands of customers in North America and overseas.

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