Zero Defects

Getting It Right First Time

Zero Defects - Get It Right First Time

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Use this philosophy to improve quality.

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?

One of the most influential ideas about this was the notion of "zero defects." This phrase was coined by Philip Crosby in his 1979 book titled, "Quality is Free."

His position was that where there are zero defects, there are no costs associated with issues of poor quality; and hence, quality becomes free.

Explaining the Idea

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 both by eliminating the cost of failure and increasing revenues through increased customer satisfaction.


While this will probably be true, it may not be true in every case!

"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.

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

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

  • Recognize the high cost of quality issues.
  • Continuously think of the places where flaws may be introduced.
  • Work proactively to 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)

When you think about it, we expect zero defects when we are talking about items or services that we use. 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.

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 which don't need it, you'll most likely be wasting resources. One of the most important of these resources is time, and this is where people are accused of time-destroying "perfectionism."

Adopting Zero Defects

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.

Management must commit to zero defects. Zero defects requires a top-down approach: The best-intentioned employees cannot provide zero defects if they are not given the tools to do so.

  • 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 using the 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.
  • Zero defects requires a proactive approach. If you wait for flaws to emerge you are too late.
  • Create quality improvement teams. Zero defects must be integrated with the corporate culture. Zero defects needs to be accepted as "the ways things are done around here."
  • Learn poka-yoke (POH-kay YOH-kay.) Invented in the 1960s by Shigeo Shingo of Japan, it translates to "prevent inadvertent mistakes." It's an approach that emphasizes designing systems that make defects almost impossible or, if they can't be avoided, easy to detect and address. To implement zero defects, you have to have strong systems in place.
  • Monitor your progress. Build mechanisms into your systems and methods of operating that provide continuous feedback. This allows you act quickly when flaws do occur.
  • Measure your quality efforts. It is 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 in eliminating them.
  • Build quality into your performance expectations. Encourage members of your team to think about how they can achieve zero defects, and reward them when they're successful.
  • Recognize that although zero defects is a destination, circumstances keep changing. Monitor, evaluate, and adapt in a continuous, never-ending cycle.


Things have moved on since 1979. Since then, there have been several waves of quality improvement 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.

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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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