Skip to Content

QUALITY TUESDAY: The Government/Quality Puzzle – Building a Quality Mindset in Government

The day after Paul Borawski, ASQ CEO, posted his blog on The Government/Quality Puzzle and noted that government should be seen as an “essential force of change for quality….through purchasing policy, public policy and use of (or lack of use) quality in the management of government,” the headliner story broke on TSA’s failure to distribute over 4,800 security screening units to airports throughout the country.  Simultaneously, Paul expressed concern about the state of quality in government and asked the Influential Blogger group to explore – what would it take to make a change?

First, let’s go back to the TSA story.  A joint congressional panel reported that 184 million dollars of security equipment sat idle between six months to a year in government warehouse facilities in Dallas.  In addition, the report estimated that the cost to just warehouse the equipment topped $3.5million annually.  Not only that, it stated that the TSA intentionally hid roughly 1,300 pieces of screening equipment from congressional investigators.  TSA’s defense was to say it was “buying in bulk,” (so much for “just-in-time”) and that equipment was in storage because airports weren’t ready to accept it (when in doubt, blame it on the customer).  Now, miraculously, since the report was released, only two AIT machines are left in storage.

Clearly there is a disconnection from quality responsibility here that has manifested itself not only in inefficiency processes, but also in an inability or unwillingness to make connections between government culture and quality outcomes.   It’s not sufficient to quickly distribute the machines and end the problem, without analyzing what happened.  What contributed to the circumstances that led to the situation?  What metrics were being maintained?  What management practices were accepting of poor quality?

Larry Kranking, a veteran operations director, recently told the pharmaceutical industry at an ISPE meeting, “Culture trumps strategy.  You have to have the right culture.  You have to have people that understand quality.  At Disneyland, everybody, from the CEO on down, would never walk past something – a piece of paper on the ground.  Even the CEO of Disney will bend over and pick that piece of paper up.”  Key to Kranking’s insights was his stress on not placing blame on QA, but rather figuring out what is going on in operations and management that is causing the problem.


Let’s look deeper here.

1. Quality needs to be owned by everyone from the individual operator on up, not only to produce quality work, but also to be empowered to intervene and head off quality issues BEFORE they arise.  What government employees were working in that warehouse that needed to surface the quality problem many months before they became public?  Did they even know how to do that?  Was there an SOP that limited the passive storage time of the equipment before action had to be taken?  What was TSA management doing to maintain quality oversight?

2. Other industries have become “best practice” examples of better quality – the automotive industry at 70-85% operational excellence, aerospace at 50-70% and computer manufacturing and consumer packaging goods at 80-90% (IPQ Newletter, May, 2012).  What data exists for government operational excellence?  If, as Borawski suggests, failure costs exceed 70% in government – why not consider alternative options.  I remember years ago when Exxon was implementing TQM, their managers were instructed to use the best providers of a service/product, either within or outside the organization.  It didn’t take long for people to realize their work could be outsourced if an external supplier could do it better.

3. This leads us to the tracking of metrics, under the notion that “what gets measured, gets done.”  Let’s begin with the “unplanned downtime” for the equipment. Whew!  That would be a scary metric to share with your congressional representative.  Or how about the estimated S24 million in depreciation costs for the loss of equipment utility that taxpayers will have to absorb?

4. All of this brings up the issue of accountability.  In the pharmaceutical industry, the FDA issues 483s, warning letters, recalls and other pain points that are so dramatic as to create “emotional events” that force an organization to wake up and address quality issues.  The FDA can declare that existing organizational quality oversight is inadequate and force the organization to secure its quality oversight through external consultants.   In other words, internal operations are so poor in securing quality that external supervision is required.  Interestingly the FDA, the IRS and other governmental agencies can issue pain points, but do they experience them themselves?  What will be the pain point for those in TSA management who allowed 472 carry-on baggage screening machines to be warehoused for more than a year (in addition to the 5,700 pieces of security equipment)?  Will there be a required root cause analysis that is reported to the tax payers?  If FDA can require an estimated 700 product recalls in 2011, what can we recall in government?  Do we, as taxpayers, have a right to demand accountability, beyond media embarrassment and a slap on the wrist?

5. Is the real problem that government doesn’t really know what operational excellence should look like? Do managers in government obsess about quality – teaching it, coaching it, mentoring it into their environments – like other industries do?  How can they learn to deliver planned, predictable performance of highest quality?  How will they take aim at detecting and solving quality issues at the earliest stage?  Experts will tell you it starts at the top.

The TSA example is symptomatic of a larger problem in government.  We have become complacent about quality in government.  We even expect government to be inept.  Years ago Tom Peters said, “Never walk by poor quality product or service again.” (In Search of Excellence)  His reasoning was that if we did, we opened ourselves up to competition from others who could do it better.  As I’m concluding this blog, I realize that each of us has a “call to action” we could take….to forward our blogs on quality in government to our representatives and senators and really start to be “an influential voice of quality.”  That’s what I plan to do.

Find Your Representative (Click Here)

Find Your Senator (Click Here)


I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own. 


Who We Are

An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

Our Twitter Feed