GxP Lifeline

Overcoming Minimalism to Elevate Manufacturing Quality


One definition for the term minimalist is “a person who holds minimal expectations for success.” This is the person who’s always asking, “What’s the least I can do … ?”  For example, what’s the least I can do to get a good grade? What’s the least I can do to get a good raise?

This type of minimalism has existed in Western society for generations. It has also been institutionalized in a “compliance mentality” in many business organizations around the world. We are driven to merely comply with quality standards, regulations, and requirements. Perish the thought of exceeding them!

Minimalism is spreading throughout the manufacturing world. The managing director of a client in Shanghai complained to me about the minimalist attitudes and behaviors among some of his employees.  “They leave right at five o’clock even if there’s still work to do! When we started the company, we would work until seven or eight or nine o’clock. But my younger employees just seem to want to work the minimum number of hours required to earn a salary.”

Several years ago, I was teaching one of my seminars for a life sciences manufacturing company in France.  An engineering manager reported that they require a Process Capability Index (Cpk) of 1.33 for “ritical to quality” characteristics “because we won’t tolerate more than 64 defective parts per million from our suppliers.”  I asked, “If it’s so critical, why don’t you require a higher Cpk from your suppliers?”  He replied, “Who’s going to pay for that?” (Translation: “What’s the least I can pay to meet a minimal quality standard?”)

The Disease of Settling

This form of minimalism has been rampant in too many manufacturing companies for far too long. In the old days, one would ask, “How’s the product quality?”  If the response was that the quality was conforming to specification, the conclusion was “Good enough.” Today people ask, “What’s the Cpk?” If it’s at least 1.33, we declare “Good enough.” This “good enough” mentality is a barrier to improvement; it’s the most common symptom of minimalism in industry. It is the disease of settling; and for many companies it has proven to be a fatal disease.

Throughout the manufacturing sector, we seem content to settle: Meeting spec, good enough; within budget, good enough; on schedule, good enough. We just keep wasting all the gifts that God has given us. The result? In the words of the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming, we have become “an object of pity.”

A glaring example of the disease of settling today is so-called Six Sigma. A Six Sigma quality level is said to use only 50% of a specification; it’s said to have a Cpk of 2.0; it’s said to result in defect rates of “only” about 3.4 parts per million. 

Sounds great, but how many millions of centimeters of cable (mechanical, microwave, and electrical) are on a modern passenger aircraft? Imagine that 3.4 centimeters per million are defective, frayed or subject to electrical shorts. Let’s hope our aerospace industry isn’t settling for Six Sigma!

In 1987, Ford Motor Company engaged Mazda to produce automatic transmissions for Ford’s assembly plants. So, Mazda started to produce Ford transmissions to Ford designs for Ford automobiles. In the well-documented Batavia Study, investigators found that the Mazda transmissions never used more than 27% of the total tolerance at any level of the design – part, component, sub-assembly, final assembly, etc. Do the math; the first Ford transmissions Mazda ever made came in with a Cpk of about 3.7. That’s greater than eleven sigma capability – and here we are settling for so-called Six Sigma.

Donald Wheeler and David Chambers cited an example of “continual improvement” (the opposite of settling) at Tokai Rika Company, a manufacturer of lighter sockets in Japan.  In their text “Understanding Statistical Process Control,” they presented an extensive summary of charts and data maintained by Tokai Rika from August 1980 to October 1981. The authors reported the following levels of product and process quality:

  1. The process output was centered on the nominal of the design specification, using only 20% of the tolerance.
  2. During the period represented by the data, Tokai Rika produced 2,906,000 parts without a single defect.

Here we are in the 21st century, getting all excited about Six Sigma (though often settling for Cpks of 1.33, or merely four sigma). Forty years ago, a little lighter socket manufacturing plant in Japan was maintaining fifteen sigma capability! A Six Sigma process is said to produce about 3.4 parts per million defective. Forty years ago, a little lighter socket manufacturer produced zero defective parts out of close to three million parts produced.

Our Quota Has Been Filled

Our minimalism quota has been filled. It’s time to overcome the malaise and mediocrity that characterize too many manufacturing companies. Back in the 1980’s (and even before that) Mazda, Tokai Rika, Toyota, Ford and other successful companies tried hard to adopt Dr. Deming’s principles. They accomplished dramatic improvements in quality, productivity and competitive position.

Let’s go back to the future; let’s study Deming’s system of profound knowledge, adopt his management system and apply the powerful statistical methods he promoted. Let’s provide leadership to create healthy environments for work, for learning and for continuous improvement. Let’s stop settling and let’s start using all of our gifts to accomplish excellence and, beyond that, continuous, never-ending improvement. 

Or, we can stick with Six Sigma and continue to settle for minimalism and mediocrity.  As Deming was fond of saying, “It’s not necessary to change.  Survival is not mandatory.”


Jim Leonard is a consultant and educator who specializes in teaching the principles of the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming as a new system of management. His clients come from a wide variety of industries, including electronics, health care, chemicals, biotech, injection molding, medical devices, and consumer products, and he has also worked with service organizations, schools, and government agencies.

Leonard has worked with manufacturing and service organizations throughout North America, Europe and in China. He serves as a senior consultant for Quality Support Group in Westford, Massachusetts. For 29 years Jim presented his seminars for the Division of Corporate and Professional Education at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., where he also served as an adjunct instructor in graduate operations and industrial engineering. Leonard works with clients in China as an instructor for the China Institute for Innovation in Shanghai.

He attended the U.S. Naval Academy, majoring in mechanical engineering and analytical management. Leonard completed his bachelor of science degree at George Washington University, and later earned a graduate degree in organization development from Clark University.

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