Sven O. Rimmelspacher, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Germany Southwest, is CEO of Quality Miners, which develops quality management software for the manufacturing industry, and co-founder of the spin-off ZERO defects. We asked Sven how his zero-defect concept could transform company culture in other sectors. Here's what he shared:

My aha! moment about the zero-defect concept happened in 2009. We were discussing with a customer how to document all data created during the production process in order to enable a traceability solution so they could continuously improve product quality. We defined the approach and agreed to execute the project.

But--aha! If we're collecting all that data anyway, why should we only store it in a database "just-in-case"? We could do even more and help our customer produce quality instead of inspect for quality

Here's what I mean. During any process, people use experience and existing knowledge to prevent problems or defects. It doesn't matter whether the process is manufacturing or invoicing. It's any process that could be described step by step.

Let's look at the process of cooking dinner: First, you need fresh, high-quality produce. Then you follow a recipe step by step, adding ingredients, seasoning with spices, and monitoring the temperature so it doesn't burn. Finally, you arrange the food nicely on a plate. If you followed the process correctly, served guests their individual plates at the same time, and even considered their food intolerances, you did a perfect job! You prevented a salty, burnt, ugly dish.

To generalize the idea, it's a matter of prevention rather than discovery. To get the desired outcome, you know what must be prevented. Everything you don't know (yet) must be discovered and its cause analyzed to prevent it in the future. That's the most important understanding of this approach: It's a learning process.

The solution is to describe any process using all necessary parameters to ensure that everything goes well--things like measures, temperatures, speed, and capabilities. We track all parameters during execution, and if data monitoring shows values within the tolerance limits, the result should be good. But defects still occur, and in such cases it is (hopefully) not a mistake but an error that was unknown until this first occurrence. We investigate the new error's causes, and introduce the discovery into the description so it won't occur again. That's how a true continuous improvement process is established: Every error contributes to zero-defect production becoming a reality.

Many companies take a completely different approach to handling errors. They do not talk openly and constructively about what went wrong but instead look for the culprit. Once he's found, they threaten him with consequences.

If this sounds familiar and you want to change your company culture around quality, there are four actions to take:

  • Value developing solutions more than determining blame. People have an incredibly good sense of whether they are more likely to win in an organization by coming up with a great solution, or if they are more likely to lose by making a mistake. If your interest in clarifying blame is very high, you will soon experience employees who are extremely creative in concealing the causes of problems and providing themselves with alibis. 
  • Support others in finding their own solutions--but don't find solutions for them. This is especially true for managers. If a manager identifies and solves an employee's problem, in most cases, it is well-intentioned. What happens, however, is nothing other than the crudest form of incapacitation and criticism. The employee has only two choices. He can point out to the superior that his solution is not so good either and thus preserve his competence and self-worth. Or, he can adopt the supervisor's solution and thus learn that it is probably the supervisor's responsibility to recognize and correct errors.
  • Stay curious about why mistakes happen and why other people decide differently than we do. Because people do not act against their better knowledge, but always act according to their best possibilities. Often, the reason lies in a different assessment of the situation, the lack of relevant information or knowledge, or seems to make sense to them in some other subjective way.
  • Don't celebrate heroes who save seemingly hopeless situations more loudly than those who achieve their goals without difficulties and escalations. If an organization has learned that heroes are needed, then it has also learned that difficult situations are needed. And if it has learned that heroes can solve difficult situations, then there is little reason to prevent them.

It's not about not making errors anymore. Nor is it about executives and managers having to tolerate or accept mistakes. Instead, it's about openly discussing the causes of errors and eliminating them at an early stage. In that way, any company can improve its culture, save money, and gain a better quality overall.