How The States Are Playing Midwife To `Baby Baldriges'

Few government initiatives can match the success of the agricultural extension service in stimulating private-sector productivity. So the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) dreams of something similar for promoting quality programs. Because it's short on money, however, NIST must rely on what Curt W. Reimann, administrator of the five-year-old Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, calls "a lot of leverage systems." That means spreading the quality message to small business via the National Governors' Assn., chambers of commerce, and other state and local groups.

It seems to be working. Most of the 16 states that have quality programs--including Delaware, Maine, Nevada, New York, and North Carolina--got the bug after the Baldrige program was started in 1987. At least 16 more--including Colorado, Florida, Missouri, and Texas--are about to join in. By most accounts, Minnesota has one of the top three programs. "We're helping make the state a better place to do business" asserts James F. Buckman, president of the Minnesota Council for Quality.

HAPPY HUB. The state founded his group in 1987. Two years later, 3M, Honeywell, IBM, and two other large companies stepped in with funding, partly to make their suppliers more quality conscious. The state council holds seminars and meetings, serves as the hub of a growing confederation of local councils, and sponsors the annual competition for the Minnesota Quality Award.

That prize, which will be awarded for the third time next year, was modeled after the Baldrige, right down to parroting the same 28 criteria. To make the contest "less intimidating for smaller companies," says Buckman, Minnesota requires less documentation than is needed for the national award.

Still, the process is demanding enough that it can be a dress rehearsal, says Douglas Darbo, quality assurance manager for EMD Associates, the Winona (Minn.) maker of electronic components that shared this year's Minnesota prize. In fact, Zytec Corp. in Eden Prairie, the first state winner, won a Baldrige the same year.

Wayne M. Fortun, president of Hutchinson Technology Inc., the other co-winner of this year's Minnesota award, says his company learned valuable lessons from last year's failed first stab. The judges cited 23 areas of deficiency, and Hutchinson, a maker of components for computer disk drives, spent the next 12 months working on them. Among other things, it started revamping its quality processes to comply with ISO 9000, the new standards that will soon be required of companies that trade with Europe. Fortun also credits Hutchinson's quality focus for helping to produce a 40% jump in earnings, to $13 million for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, on a revenue gain of 12%, to $160 million.

INSTANT WINNERS. If the hint of such riches doesn't do the trick, Buckman will resort to showmanship to interest the uninitiated in quality. For instance, he recently deputized 250 volunteers to bestow 1,000 instant quality awards--lapel pins--on folks who do what they do quite well, be it shining shoes or performing brain surgery. The lucky winners were invited to a lunch with Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson. "It's a good way to raise consciousness about quality in little towns around the state," says Buckman.

The council is also working with Minnesota Technology Inc., a state organization that helps small business, to develop a standard process for certifying suppliers. And it has launched projects to spread quality programs to the public sector, including the Minnesota school system and state agencies such as the Revenue Dept. The long-term goal, says Buckman, is to make quality synonymous with Minnesota.

There's no way to know for sure what difference these efforts will make. But Buckman likes to note that Minnesota's unemployment rate is 4.8%--well below the national average of 7.4%. Such statistics, he says, give him an inkling that the state's emphasis on quality doesn't hurt.

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