Zero Defects

Getting It Right First Time


© iStockphoto/mrPliskin

How much do quality failures cost your company?

Quality defects have significant costs associated with them – some of the most obvious being money, time, resources, and lost reputation. And programs to eliminate quality defects can be expensive and time consuming.

So, do you insist on eliminating defects entirely no matter the cost? Or, do you accept that a certain, albeit very small, percentage of defects is acceptable, and just accept the costs and learn to live with them?

One of the most influential ideas about this was the notion of "zero defects." This phrase was coined by Philip Crosby in his 1979 book titled, "Quality is Free."

His position was that where there are zero defects, there are no costs associated with issues of poor quality; and hence, quality becomes free.

Explaining the Idea

Zero defects is a way of thinking and doing that reinforces the notion that defects are not acceptable, and that everyone should "do things right the first time". The idea here is that with a philosophy of zero defects, you can increase profits both by eliminating the cost of failure and increasing revenues through increased customer satisfaction.


While this will probably be true, it may not be true in every case!

"Zero defects" is referred to as a philosophy, a mentality or a movement. It's not a program, nor does it have distinct steps to follow or rules to abide by. This is perhaps why zero defects can be so effective, because it means it's adaptable to any situation, business, profession or industry.

The question that often comes up when zero defects is discussed, is whether or not zero defects is ever attainable. Essentially, does adopting a zero defect environment only set users up for failure?

Zero defects is NOT about being perfect. Zero defects is about changing your perspective. It does this by demanding that you:

  • Recognize the high cost of quality issues.
  • Continuously think of the places where flaws may be introduced.
  • Work proactively to address the flaws in your systems and processes, which allow defects to occur.

Zero defects is a standard. It is a measure against which any system, process, action, or outcome can be analyzed. When zero defects is the goal, every aspect of the business is subject to scrutiny in terms of whether it measures up.

The quality manager must be clear, right from the start, that zero defects is not a motivation program. Its purpose is to communicate to all employees the literal meaning of the words 'zero defects' and the thought that everyone should do things right the first time. "Quality Is Free" by Philip B. Crosby (McGraw-Hill Books, 1979)

When you think about it, we expect zero defects when we are talking about items or services that we use. If you buy a fancy new plasma TV and your pixels start burning by the thousands, you demand satisfaction. When you take the car in for brake service, you expect that the mechanic will install the parts exactly as the manufacturer prescribes. No defect is an acceptable defect when it affects you personally.

So why then, is it so easy to accept that "defects happen" when you are the one producing the product or providing the service? This is the interesting dichotomy that presents itself. Zero defects is one of the best ways to resolve the discord between what we expect for ourselves and what we can accept for others.


Be very careful about where you apply zero defects. If what you're doing contributes towards a mission critical or complex goal, you'd better adopt a zero defects approach, or things could quickly unravel.

However, if you fanatically follow a zero defects approach in areas which don't need it, you'll most likely be wasting resources. One of the most important of these resources is time, and this is where people are accused of time-destroying "perfectionism."

Adopting Zero Defects

There are no step-by-step instructions for achieving zero defects, and there is no magic combination of elements that will result in them. There are, however, some guidelines and techniques to use when you decide you are ready to embrace the zero defects concept.

Management must commit to zero defects. Zero defects requires a top down approach: The best-intentioned employees cannot provide zero defects if they are not given the tools to do so.

  • When you decide that zero defects is the approach you want to take, recognize that it likely represents a significant change to the way people do things. Manage the introduction using the principles of change management.
  • 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.
  • Zero defects requires a proactive approach. If you wait for flaws to emerge you are too late.
  • Create quality improvement teams. Zero defects must be integrated with the corporate culture. Zero defects needs to be accepted as "the ways things are done around here".
  • Learn poka-yoke (POH-kay YOH-kay.) Invented in the 1960s by Shigeo Shingo of Japan, it translates to "prevent inadvertent mistakes". It's an approach that emphasizes designing systems 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.
  • Monitor your progress. Build mechanisms into your systems and methods of operating that provide continuous feedback. This allows you act quickly when flaws do occur.
  • Measure your quality efforts. It is important to express your progress in terms of the bottom line. Take baseline measurements so you understand the cost of defects in your organization, and can measure the benefits your achieveing in eliminating them.
  • Build quality into your performance expectations. Encourage members of your team to think about how they can achieve zero defects, and reward them when they're successful.
  • Recognize that although zero defects is a destination, circumstances keep changing. Monitor, evaluate, and adapt in a continuous, never-ending cycle.


Things have moved on since 1979. Since then, there have been several waves of quality improvement which have taken things further, most recently resulting in Six Sigma  .

While zero defects is a useful idea, be aware that you may have to go much further nowadays if you want to lead your market in terms of quality of delivery.

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Comments (10)
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi papabeartoo,

    It's disheartening to hear when people are effectively punished for wanting to produce quality work. Quality issues bring the cost issue versus production issue to a head in many organizations - if it costs too much to produce quality then what side suffers? Lots of companies choose to risk a higher than optimum defect rate for lower overall production costs.

    It's not an easy solution for any manager - maybe that's why I'm not in QM. Not that HR doesn't have it's own quality issues but they are less obvious and less easy to measure ( which is a whole other issue isn't it!)

    I'm not sure there is an answer - it seems it takes good judgement and a good holistic sense of what the company wants to acheive and be known for, when trying to decide whether zero defects is doable.

  • papabeartoo wrote Over a month ago
    I've been in the manufacturing arena for lots of years. While the philosophy is sound, the issue that I've noted in getting it implemented is that the system is only as good as it's weakest link. Training every employee and taking fear of stopping production or passing on of defects is something that many organizations "say they do", but when it comes time to fully support the philosophy by "pushing the BIG RED STOP BUTTON", it usually causes bad things to happen...negative reinforcement. I've even been let go from a manager's position due to getting the customer what they asked for. This isn't true for every company, but many organizations have a problem doing what they say they "should" do.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    I completely agree - there are some systems that demand zero defects and others that don't. A good manager is one who can spot the difference

    He/she doesn't waste time and resources devising and enforcing very tight systems for processes that don't require them.

    He/she does spend the time and resources needed to ensure the ones that do require it are done right the first time.

  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Jara

    I think the answer is - it depends...

    In some areas it's critically important - for example, if you're building a machine with 1000 parts, even if each part is only 99.9% correct, there's only a 37% chance of it working first time when it's all put together. Here managers have got to truly believe in zero defects, and get the level of defects way below 0.1%.

    This is why companies like Motorola (electronics, cellphones) and GE (e.g. aero engines) use techniques like six sigma to take a fanatical approach to quality. You can bet that managers and staff in these companies take quality incredibly seriously. And as someone who flies, you can also bet that I want them to take it seriously!

    Other than this, I guess the best way of assessing how seriously you should be taking it is to look at the consequences of getting things wrong. If it really doesn't matter much, then that's fine. But if failure in your job puts lives at risk but people still aren't paying much attention to quality, that's something to be really concerned about!

    What do others think?
  • Jara wrote Over a month ago
    What happens in real life though, when the system that is put is place gets ignored or bypassed - either due to carelessness (not me) or a just a natural complacency becuase there usually isn't a problem. And don't get me wrong - I don't skim the reports all the time but when there are other deadlines or things I admit to cutting corners. I'm a good employee, so if I do it then I know everyone does it.

    I'm curious how this handled from a mangerial standpoint.

    Is zero defects or something very close considered attainable by most people at the mgmt level, or is it one of those things that is great in theory but doesn't really get applied very effectively?

  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    This whole quality arena is so interesting. You hit it on the head Helena when you said that for some positions a certain system is required and for others it is totally inappropriate.

    That is one of the hardest parts of any control system - what controls do you set in place and what balance do you strike to make sure the system is efficient and accurate? Do you necessarily have to sacrifice one for the other?

    I look forward to hearing how other people have handled this.

  • MaxZero wrote Over a month ago
    Helena - thanks! I look forward to it!
  • Helena wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Jara

    Glad you enjoyed the Zero defects article AND have spotted how you can apply it in your work. It's intyeresting that you mentioned payroll. This is an area where I think a zero defects approach IS important because it's to do with money and individual's money in their pockets too!

    I remember working at one small company where the 3 people who did the accounts shared an open-plan room with the company administrator, Laura. Laura mentioned to me once that the Miriam, who did the payroll, was SOOO slow with her work - "she checsd everything THREE times!", complained Laura.

    Now don't get me wrong here, Laura was really good at HER job, which involved juggling loads of things - organizing diaries, booking meetings, taking phone calls, and the like. But the point she'd missed is that the approach she took to her work (which was that the #1 priority was to get everything done FAST) was right for her but was not right for payroll, and the rigorous checking that Miriam took was 100% right for HER job.

    Horses for courses.

    There are more tips on how to spot the difference between urgent and important in this article:

    Premium members only:

    Hope your week has zero defects (in the right areas)!


    P.S. Thanks for encouraging us to do an overview of six sigma too - you're quite right that it would be useful!
  • MaxZero wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Jara, yes I agree!
    Perhaps the Club team could give us a taster on Six Sigma some time? (Nothing too heavy, because I know it's complicated...)
  • Jara wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Helena,

    Do it right the first time - that's an excellent philiosophy. I admit to cutting corners sometimes and the stress it causes me isn't worth it. I worry that I missed something important and that I'll be found out. I'm not talking major things but I've skimmed the payroll reports a few times and not really looked at the numbers because 99.9% of the time it's right.

    I'm going to think twice now when I'm tempted to take the easy route. I've heard of this six-sigma thing but didn't know much about it. I'm interested now in learning more.

    Great article, thanks!


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