Back in my days at The Quality College, Phil Crosby used to tell the story about how he personally came to understand the power of a performance standard. Phil was the chief quality engineer on the Pershing missile project being run by Martin Marietta Aerospace (now Lockheed Martin). The first launch of that missile was an unmitigated disaster with the device exploding seconds after liftoff.

The performance standard of error-free is the commitment to not accept any nonconformance.

In an after-action review, Phil offered the observation that the missile was an extremely complex system and it was not surprising that something went wrong somewhere in the assembly. The program vice president looked over the top of his glasses at Crosby and held the stare for a few uncomfortable seconds. Then he said “Phil, somewhere out there is a quality engineer who can give me a zero defect missile. I sure hope it’s you…”

At that split second it became real for Phil: you get what you ask for. If you ask for “good enough” from the organization, you get “good enough” work. But if you ask for and expect and demand error free work, you will also get that. That’s what the Pershing program vice president was saying.

Phil Crosby went on to develop the Zero Defects concept. Some people understood what Phil was trying to convey with this concept, and others did not.

Error-free work represents a personal performance standard. It is a personal commitment by an individual to work to meet requirements and to practice prevention. That personal performance standard will grow past the individual and become a group or company-wide performance standard.

Is error-free work even a possibility? Well how often should we expect products and services to conform to requirements? What if one product out of 10 is nonconforming and you are the unlucky soul who got the problem product. Are you happy about it? Do you accept the situation and leave well enough alone? Of course not.

How about health care? What if a surgeon tells you that the procedure your loved one is going to go through works ninety-nine out of 100 times, but he’s already had 100 successful procedures. Would you expect the surgeon to be less careful with your loved one? Of course not.

Well, then why do people do work that doesn’t meet the agreed upon requirements for that work and give it little after-thought? In most cases, it is because management has allowed them not to conform to requirements.

Perhaps management allowed a shipment of nonconforming raw materials into the production process, and those materials led to other defects. Or perhaps management hasn’t given the training and coaching necessary to let the individual meet the job requirements every time.Situations like these create a culture in which shaving the edges of the work to be done becomes acceptable.

The performance standard of error-free is the commitment to not accept any nonconformance. It doesn’t mean that we will be perfect. If a problem does arise, however, we will not explain it away as Phil tried to do with that first Pershing missile failure. Instead, the problem will be analyzed, the root cause(s) determined and corrected, and when proven to work as planned, the change will become permanent. The solution will become a new requirement.

An organization committed to error-free performance will quickly outstrip its competitor because it will be more productive, more cost-effective and offer a reliable product or service that leads to greater customer satisfaction.