I believe in zero defects

by Holly Mickelson

No matter what business you’re in, it’s hard to argue with the idea that it’s better to do your job right the first time rather than to correct mistakes later. That’s the reasoning behind “zero defects,” a philosophy that argues for reducing defects through prevention and has been adopted by countless companies around the world.

The story of zero defects can be traced back to Philip Crosby, a quality control manager working on the Pershing missile program at Martin Company (now part of Lockheed Martin) in Orlando, Florida, in the 1960s. Crosby established four absolutes for what he called the zero defects standard: quality is conformance to requirements; defect prevention is preferable to quality inspection and correction; zero defects is the quality standard; and quality is measured in monetary terms.

His ideas eventually resulted in a 25 percent reduction in the overall rejection rate of the Pershing missile, and a 30 percent reduction in scrap costs.

Holly Mickelson

Martin Company offered zero defects to any company who wanted to use it as a good will gesture. Not long after, it became a guiding principle behind the Titan rocket series, which would be used to propel astronauts into space and back again for NASA’s Gemini program. Gemini carried out ten manned missions and had a 100 percent success rate, a feat unmatched in space travel before or since.

But zero defects is not just for aerospace. Zero defects can be adapted to any situation, business profession or industry. It isn’t a program and there are no steps to follow – it’s simply a proactive standard.

My business is words: writing, editing and translating words, with the goal of helping you and your business perform better. I too see the value in zero defects, and strive to apply the principles to my own working methods – to my customers’ benefit. Below I’ve attempted to show how I apply Crosby’s four absolutes in my own work.

Quality is conformance to requirements

For each customer, I make a point of asking questions first – about their standards, their preferred vocabulary, their audience and the purpose of each text. It doesn’t matter if I’m “just” translating or if I’m creating something totally new – these questions always matter. I want to perform the job with their specific requirements in mind so I get it right the first time.

Of course, I also understand that quality work is teamwork. It’s a product of minds that see things in different ways and of people who have differing knowledge, skills sets, and experience at their command. Part of my job is to work with the customer to make the final product conform to their requirements.

Zero defects

Defect prevention is preferable to quality inspection and correction

Words on the page are never just words: I make a conscious effort to identify the meaning behind them and then transmit it in the texts I return to the customer. Failing to do so constitutes a defect in my work. That’s why, when copyediting or translating, I question the accuracy of an original text as a matter of principle, never accepting anything at face value or glossing over the unclear, the ambiguous or the unfamiliar.

At the same time, I am utterly and unreservedly open to queries and proposals with reference to my work. My commitment to quality leaves no room for misplaced professional pride when debating interpretations or questions of style among colleagues, or with our customers.

Zero defects is the quality standard

Nobody benefits if I assume the original text contains everything I need to know to do my job properly. I do research to ensure that I’m accessing the right sources, following up with those who are accountable, and even counter-checking with other sources that may provide me with different information. Missing or incorrect information is an obvious defect, but what if the document sounds condescending or rude? If I feel the text I’m working on doesn’t include enough information for the audience I’m writing for or sets the wrong tone, I need to identify what’s missing and start asking questions. And if I knowingly duplicate an error in the original text, I’m not holding myself to the philosophy of zero defects, and nobody benefits.

Quality is measured in monetary terms – the price of nonconformance

Presenting information inaccurately can have an adverse effect on my customer’s business, and this risk is something I as a translator must consider. The monetary value of getting it wrong is not always obvious, or easy to calculate. One thing is for sure, however, the “near invisible” or downstream costs will in most cases far exceed the obvious costs incurred when sensitive information is wrongly translated or edited. This applies to every press release, every financial statement, every color glossy image brochure.

Zero defects is best known as a management tool aimed at the reduction of defects through prevention. I embrace that philosophy through and through, doing everything in my power to do my job right the first time. I’ll stake my reputation on it.

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