How To Spread The Gospel Of Quality

Big U.S. corporations on the front lines of the global economy have taken to heart the principle that success begins with high quality, to the advantage of consumers and workers alike. Defect rates on U.S.-built cars are barely distinguishable from those of their Japanese counterparts, and companies such as Xerox and Motorola have become case studies in how quality drives corporate performance.

But there are still plenty of medium- to smaller-size U.S. companies to be enlisted in the effort. Many smaller companies have yet to achieve even a rudimentary understanding of how to achieve higher quality.

A lot is at stake. Most new jobs in the economy are created by smaller companies. They account for one-half of U.S. exports. And big manufacturers, whether of computers or industrial machinery, often rely on smaller suppliers for more than half the value of finished products.

Recognizing this, bigger companies, most notably in the auto and electronics industries, have set stringent quality standards for suppliers. More important, the Big Three and other companies are working with suppliers to demonstrate how to achieve higher quality. That still leaves plenty of smaller companies without guidance, particularly if they are too small to afford the consultants willing to offer advice for a fee.

Here, then, is an area where government and nonprofit institutions can play a key role. Sixteen states have initiated their own versions of the Commerce Dept.'s prestigious Baldrige award to provide guideposts to upgrading quality. The Minnesota Council for Quality, a private-sector initiative, also provides grants to local chambers of commerce for education. The nonprofit American Productivity & Quality Center collects and disseminates information that lets companies compare their procedures with the best in various fields through benchmarking.

These programs deserve the support of Corporate America and taxpayers. Another initiative long advocated by BUSINESS WEEK, a nationwide network of technology extension services offered through federal research laboratories or community colleges, would also help. The skills and the information to significantly enhance the competitiveness of a critical part of U.S. business already exists. A small investment in spreading knowledge would pay big dividends.

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