This month’s ASQ Influential Voices Post is from the ASQ World Conference on Quality and Improvement. Specifically, it’s an interview with Bennie Fowler, Ford Motor Companies Second-ranked executive for quality.

Yes, Bennie is the highest executive with the word “Quality” in his title, but I continue to hold that the CEO is always the chief quality officer — wether you realize it or not.
But I digress.
It’s a good interview.
Good for a few reasons.
First, I admire the Ford Motor Company — at least a little bit. Yes, they’ve made some foolish decisions. Yes, they’ve had some problems with unions, with inefficiencies in the supply chain, with health care coverage and benefits, made some stinker cars. Yet you’d expect that from any company that has survived a hundred years.
The fact that they’ve weathered those crises says something.
For that matter, Ford Motor Corporation is the last of the “Big 3” American Car Manufacturers still standing. Both General Motors and Chrysler took government bailouts that fundamentally manipulated the free market system.
I don’t have time to get into it all here, and I’m not sure that it’s appropriate, but let me say these three things: (1) Rescues distort markets, rewarding failure and enabling more (2) General Motors had secured bondholders — in the event the bonds weren’t paid, the bondholders were supposed to repossess and be able to sell hard assets, even in the event of bankruptcy. That agreement was not honored, meaning that in the bailout we lost the rule of law. Most importantly: (3) Bailouts come with strings attached.
Of the big three, only the Ford executives seemed to realize point number three.
So here you have a senior executive at Ford talking in some depth about quality. What did he say?
Quality to Ford Motor Corporation

Bennie ticked off four things: Beauty, Fuel Efficiency, Technology, Safety.
First of all, off the bat, that is important. He actually knew what the company wanted to improve, and how. All four of these are specific, actionable, and mean something to the customer. Notice the kinds of things he did not mention: Internal Process Improvement, “Governance”, Driving Waste out of the process, or any hand-wavy stuff.
Process Improvement, Governance, Driving out waste — all those are good, but they are internal facing, and focus on process, not outcome.
Bennie knows what the customer wants. Just as importantly, he can articulate it.
That kind of vision is going to drive decision making and priorities.
Despite all the power they seem to have, the reality is that an executive can get some finite number of things actually done-done.
I’m serious about this. Think about the executives you worked with who had a new idea a day: Hoe many things did they ever actually get to done-done?
It seems trivial, but ask yourself if you know what those three to six things are for your company, your division, your team.
The Cost of Entry
Toward the end of the interview, Bennie mentioned that one traditional view of quality, the lack of defects, is sort of the cost of entry to play in the game. Sure, it’s important, but lack of defects isn’t going to distinguish Ford from Toyota or the other Big Boys. It’s not a strategic differentiator.
Instead, Bennie suggested that it’s the entire user experience — things that in software we might call UX or Interaction Design — that are going to make the difference.
Back in software, I’m remind of the massive success of the iPod, verses all the chintzy MP3 players that came before it, or, for that matter, verses the Zune that came after it.
One big difference in software is the number of dimensions of the work, and the stress you can put the work under. The number of test conditions increases exponentially with the inputs, and with a GUI and user-defined workflow it becomes a much larger challenging to say something like the software is “fit for use.” (Remember back when we had no GUI and programmer-defined batch processes? Those were the days.)
So, as of today, I do think there is room for differentiation by low defects, but the bar for entry does keep wratcheting up. For example, if users can do something on website in three clicks, and it takes your site ten, and both sites are free … you’ve got a problem. If your software takes fifteen seconds to present search results, and the other site does it in five … you’ve got a problem.
There are lots of ways to compete. Your company might be huge, have amazing assets, and deploy three thousand people to take an existing product and make it web-based, using it’s existing relationships to spread that cost out over hundreds of millions of site licenses.
Then again, you might be three guys working in a founder’s basement.
Either way, your company will have to make some tough choices.
On the one hand, yes, it is possible for middle managers and staffers who know the terrain to add some value by deciding which of the “top-16” priorities will actually get done today.
What I am saying is: A little vision can sure go a long way.