Everyone has heard about the “Zero Defects” concept. The idea was conceived in the 1980’s by quality guru Philip Crosby. His reasoning was that the quality costs in a company, caused by poor quality, reach zero when there are no defects. And so, he came to his famous quote and book: “Quality is Free”.

What does this mean now? I can already hear you thinking, zero mistakes, that’s not realistic at all, because we just work with people and people make mistakes. Well, it is primarily about an ambition and especially the idea that you can prevent mistakes by working preventively. It’s not about being perfect but rather about avoiding mistakes as a result of proactive thinking and continuous improvement. Zero Defects is about implementing a “zero error” mindset as part of the organizational culture. This approach requires that you constantly ask yourself where errors can creep into work processes and that you systematically eliminate these potential causes of error in systems, processes, and actions. If you reverse error-free, then we come to the well-known “Right First Time” paradigm. Processes and systems must be designed in such a way that things go well immediately and not that corrections or repairs are needed afterwards.

From customer expectations it also means that customers do not accept errors and only pay for products and services that are free of errors. And that’s just normal I hear you think. Still, some companies assume that it is OK if 1 error in 100 occurs. At this level they are satisfied. It sounds statistically reasonable… ”1% errors, that’s good all right!”. Unless you belong to that one percent of customers, because then you have the problem for the full 100%!

In summary, if you really want satisfied customers, then you do everything you can to reduce the number of defects to a bare minimum. Zero-defects thinking fits perfectly here. But this requires a mindset change, a behavioural change. From mistakes being made to what can I do to avoid things going wrong.

What usually helps is to simplify processes. When I facilitate organizations to map their processes, their first reaction is often: “it’s complicated and how is it possible that this can even work?”. Over-complex processes are often a source of mistakes. Another source of faults are the interfaces between processes. Unclear agreements between internal supplier and customer lead to unclear expectations and finally to mistakes.

Do not underestimate the culture change required and over-communicate to fellow colleagues why zero defects is so important. How can they contribute and especially how they individually can make customers happy? Pay attention to the right behaviour and give constructive and positive feedback.

Next to the required cultural change, you can take practical small steps to make processes and systems more robust. I have listed a few practical things you can start doing right now:

  • Understand what your customers expect in terms of quality. Design systems that support zero defects where it matters, but don’t over-design if the end-user just doesn’t care. Encourage internal and external customer – supplier conversations to find out
  • Use customer complaints to learn from. They contain a gold mine of improvement opportunities. Find the underlying cause and eliminate the problem.
  • Zero Defects requires a proactive approach. Map the risks where things can go wrong and come up with step-by-step solutions to eliminate the risks one by one. Start small and make it a daily routine.
  • Execute small experiments – come up with creative solutions together with the team, test them quickly on a small scale. And if it works, implement them widely in the organization.
  • Apply “Poka Yoke”. It’s an approach that emphasizes designing small and inexpensive tools that make defects almost impossible or, if they can’t be avoided, easy to detect and address. To implement zero defects, you have to have strong systems in place.
  • Standardize good practices. Make short instructions or checklists together with the people running the process and activities. Checklists have proven their value in aviation. You don’t want pilots to overlook anything, especially if you’re on that plane yourself. Spend sufficient time to explain the “why” and train the team extensively.
  • Measure your quality efforts and make progress visible. Celebrate early successes give active recognition and show personal interest to the team.
  • Keep doing and never give up!

Is “Zero Defects” a useful approach? Well, zero defects is not a destination in itself, but a journey to achieve the best customer experience possible.

Remember, it challenges people to shift paradigms and:

  • Recognize the high costs associated with quality issues.
  • Continuously think of instances where errors may occur.
  • Proactively address the system and process shortcomings that allow defects to happen.

Make those small improvement steps, avoid more and more defects over time, and you’ll get closer and closer to zero defects. Your customers will thank you, become loyal and keep coming back. Satisfied customers are the best advertisement for your product or service and is free after all!