Dear Jeff,

I run a manufacturing facility. The hardest ongoing decisions I have to make regard the gray areas of quality: To ship, or not to ship? That is the question. How can I balance our standards against financial and schedule considerations?—Name withheld by request

The easy answer is to never ship any product that doesn't meet the most exacting standards.

That's also-as anyone who has worked in manufacturing knows-a guideline that is sometimes really hard to follow in practice.

I worked in book manufacturing for 20 years, and the issue came up fairly often. Say we were running a job where the quality didn't quite meet standards but books needed to ship on time or the customer would be extremely upset... plus reworking the job would create an expensive and all too career-limiting spoilage. Making the decision tougher was the fact that books were shipped to warehouses and bookstores all over the country; our actual customer, the publisher, would only see the few books that were hand-picked by our in-house sample selectors.

In short, our customer (the publisher) would likely never know there was a minor problem with some of the books-and neither would their eventual customers, the people who purchased those books.

Quality is important and all jobs should meet standards. But cost control and hitting ship dates and meeting other performance metrics is important too. But just as important is what happens to your employees when you make a judgment call. Ship sub-standard products and your employees inevitably decide that quality standards are flexible, and they're likely to drop their own standards in response.

So what do you do? When you're in doubt, start talking. Share your decision-making process with your team. Talk through the issues. Think out loud. Then ask for their opinion and get them involved.

Sure, ultimately you will make the final decision, but the more you engage your team the more they realize that there is a logic behind whatever decision you make, and that tough calls are always case by case and never automatic or knee-jerk.

What did I typically decide? In general, I followed a thought process like this:

Is it really bad?

Sometimes you look at the final product and immediately think, "Ugh, this is bad." If that's your reaction, rework the job.

How critical is the ship date?

Major publishers often tied advertising campaigns, store placement, etc. to ship dates. If we shipped late they lost money and sales. Shipping the new Harry Potter book late would have been considered to be a very, very, very bad thing.

How much time and money is involved in rework?

Unfortunately this factor did play a role. No business is in business to lose money. Deciding to rework when rework is quick and cheap is an easier call to make than when considerable delay and expense is involved.

Will the end user be affected in any way?

Sometimes a quality problem would only be noticeable by us, like if a book was trimmed 1/8″ too short. (Similar to shipping, say, a shirt that is a slightly different color than specified in the contract. Will a customer in a store notice a shade difference that can only be identified side-by-side using a swatch?) If the end user 1) won't notice and more importantly 2) will not in any way be negatively impacted, shipping might be okay.

Then I blended all those considerations together, talked it through with the crew, made a decision... and then immediately focused on ways we could keep the same problem from happening in the future.

Key point: Never get other people involved in the decision-making process unless you really want their input-and will act on that input.

For example, in our case I could have also called the customer service rep handling the job, but I know what most of them would say: "The job needs to meet standards and it needs to ship today."

Great... and impossible.

And if you work for someone else, never call in people higher in the corporate food chain unless you are required to get their input in order to make the decision. Otherwise your team will know you shy away from making the tough calls.

You're in charge. Make the decision and accept responsibility for the outcome.

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