Zero Defects

Improving Product Quality and Eliminating Waste

Zero Defects - Improving Product Quality and Eliminating Waste

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Zero defects means getting it right the first time, every time!

How much do quality failures cost your company?

Quality defects have significant costs associated with them – some of the most obvious being money, time, resources, and lost reputation. And programs to eliminate quality defects can be expensive and time consuming.

So, do you insist on eliminating defects entirely no matter the cost? Or, do you accept that a certain, albeit very small, percentage of defects is acceptable, and just accept the costs and learn to live with them?

In this article, we'll take a look at the idea of "zero defects," what that means, when it can be useful and how to apply it in your organization.

Zero Defects: Definition

The phrase "zero defects" was first coined by Philip Crosby in his 1979 book titled, "Quality is Free." [1]

Zero defects is a way of thinking and doing that reinforces the notion that defects are not acceptable, and that everyone should "do things right the first time." The idea here is that with a philosophy of zero defects, you can increase profits by eliminating the cost of failure and increasing revenues through increased customer satisfaction.

Crosby's position was that, where there are zero defects, there are no costs associated with issues of poor quality. As a result, quality becomes free.

"Zero defects" is referred to as a philosophy, a mentality or a movement. It's not a program, nor does it have distinct steps to follow or rules to abide by. This is perhaps why zero defects can be so effective, because it means it's adaptable to any situation, business, profession or industry.

Zero Defects and Continuous Improvement

The question that often comes up when zero defects is discussed, is whether or not it is ever truly attainable. Essentially, does adopting a zero defect environment only set people up for failure?

Zero defects is not about being perfect. It's about changing your perspective by demanding that you:

  • Recognize the high cost of quality issues.
  • Strive to continuously improve processes.
  • Work proactively to identify and address the flaws in your systems and processes, which allow defects to occur.

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Zero defects is a standard. It is a measure against which any system, process, action, or outcome can be analyzed. When zero defects is the goal, every aspect of the business is subject to scrutiny in terms of whether it measures up.

The quality manager must be clear, right from the start, that zero defects is not a motivation program. Its purpose is to communicate to all employees the literal meaning of the words 'zero defects' and the thought that everyone should do things right the first time. "Quality Is Free" by Philip B. Crosby (McGraw-Hill Books, 1979). [1]

When you think about it, we expect zero defects every time we buy a new product or service. If you buy a fancy new plasma TV and your pixels start burning by the thousands, you demand satisfaction. When you take the car in for brake service, you expect that the mechanic will install the parts exactly as the manufacturer prescribes. No defect is an acceptable defect when it affects you personally and particularly when it comes to safety.

So why then, is it so easy to accept that "defects happen" when you are the one producing the product or providing the service? This is the interesting dichotomy that presents itself. Zero defects is one of the best ways to resolve the discord between what we expect for ourselves and what we can accept for others.


Be very careful about where you apply zero defects. If what you're doing contributes towards a mission-critical or complex goal, you'd better adopt a zero defects approach, or things could quickly unravel.

However, if you fanatically follow a zero defects approach in areas that don't need it, you'll most likely be wasting precious resources and time. This is where people are often accused of time-destroying perfectionism.

How to Adopt a Zero Defects Approach

There are no step-by-step instructions for achieving zero defects, and there is no magic combination of elements that will result in them. There are, however, some guidelines and techniques to use when you decide you are ready to embrace the zero defects concept.

Zero defects requires a top-down approach. The best-intentioned employees cannot provide zero defects if they are not provided with good leadership and the tools with which to get it right.

Here are some tips that can help you to apply the zero defects approach:

  • Manage process changes effectively. When you decide that zero defects is the approach you want to take, recognize that it likely represents a significant change to the way people do things. Manage the introduction of a zero defects approach effectively by following the four key principles of change management.
  • Understand what your customers expect in terms of quality. Design systems that support zero defects where it matters, but don't over-design if the end-user just doesn't care.
  • Prioritize continuous improvement and efficiency. Zero defects requires a proactive approach, in which all people in all teams are consistently testing how robust the processes that they use are, and exploring ways in which these can be improved upon and made more efficient. Encourage people to do this by integrating your zero defects ethos into your corporate culture. This will ensure that it is becomes an accepted standard that people proactively work toward.
  • Learn poka-yoke (POH-kay YOH-kay.) Invented in the 1960s by the Japanese industrial engineer, Shigeo Shingo, "poka-yoke" translates to "prevent inadvertent mistakes." It's an approach that emphasizes designing systems that make defects almost impossible or, if they're unavoidable, easy to detect and address.
  • Monitor your progress. Build mechanisms into your systems, methods and processes that provide continuous feedback. This allows you act quickly when flaws do occur.
  • Measure your quality efforts. It's important to express your progress in terms of the bottom line. Take baseline measurements so you understand the cost of defects in your organization, and can measure the benefits you're achieving by eliminating them.
  • Build quality into your performance expectations. Encourage your people to think about how they can achieve zero defects, and reward them when they're successful.


Things have moved on since 1979. Since then, there have been several waves of quality improvement techniques which have taken things further, most recently resulting in Six Sigma.

While zero defects is a useful idea, be aware that you may have to go much further nowadays if you want to lead your market in terms of quality of delivery.

Key Points

Zero defects is a way of thinking and doing that reinforces the idea that defects are not acceptable, and that everyone must strive to "get it right the first time."

When you strive for zero defects it can improve the quality of your product or service, and reduce costs associated with waste.

While a zero defects approach will work very well and indeed is necessary in some organizations – for example, where quality standards and product safety is paramount – if used inappropriately it can result in time being wasted on unnecessary perfectionism. So, it's important that organizations understand why a zero defects approach is needed, before introducing it.

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Comments (14)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi Shamim,

    We're glad that you liked the article and we hope you are able to apply what you learned at your workplace. Defects in products and services is costly and will erode customer satisfaction and loyalty.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Shamim wrote
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hello Sarah,

    It's difficult to work under the pressure of finding other people's mistakes, and having your own job depend on it.

    Perhaps this article can be of use in helping you to help others reduce their errors: https://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/dealing-with-sloppy-work.php

    Mind Tools Team
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