lead/marke NET: Tom Fishburne > “Quality (out of) Control”

Note: Who stifles innovation, differentiation, variety in your company? Did you think about your own quality control? You will – after Tom’s post. Enjoy!
(lead/marke NET proudly features Tom’s inspiring posts on a regular basis.)


I’m enjoying Rework, the entrepreneurial handbook by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson, founders of 37signals.  I was inspired to read it after meeting Mark Rohde, who drew all of the illustrations.

One of the brilliant riffs in the book is titled, “Nobody likes plastic flowers”. Jason and David lobby for the beauty of imperfection and advocate the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi. They illustrate wabi-sabi with a wonderful quote by Leonard Koren:

“Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize.”

This flexible philosophy often conflicts with Quality Control, which prizes consistency over “poetry”. The Six Sigma Quality Control movement in particular clamps down on variability.

Strict discipline may be crucial in many forms of product development (otherwise you wind up with the Toyota brake recall). Yet strict quality control standards also sand out the more interesting attributes of product experience. Product development becomes a constant tug-o-war to standardize, not sterilize. How do you write a Quality specification for “poetry”?

When I worked on Häagen-Dazs, we had a lot of internal debates on Quality. We had two US factories, one in California and one in Maryland. The milk came from local farms. East coast milk inherently tastes slightly different from West coast milk because the diet for the cows is different. Yet, our goal was to ensure that West coast ice cream tasted the same as East coast ice cream. Why exactly? Why does Quality Control have to mean absolute consistency? Consumers expect wine brands to taste different from year to year because of crop variability. Why not other products?

Our Mango ice cream created tension because the mango pieces were not consistently sized. Each pint had large pieces and small pieces, as if they were hand-cut, not machine-cut. Consumers liked the variability. Yet, Quality Control wanted to pick one consistent size. It was easier to design a specification that way.

Why can’t mass-produced products accept some variability? Jones Soda features different labels each time you drink them. It is those differences that create drama and interest. Quality is important. But that doesn’t mean that brands should become plastic flowers.

Tom, when not cartooning (eg. for Marketing Week), is method’s international managing director. Based in London, he frequently speaks at campuses, companies, and conferences about marketing, cartooning, and how to spread business ideas. @tomfishburne