Covid-19 & The Importance Of Quality

by Allan Ung

During the first two decades of the 21st century, many companies and organisations have jumped onto the bandwagon of Lean Manufacturing (Fig. 1) — a management philosophy based on the Toyota Production System.

Fig. 1 - The Lean Manufacturing Framework (a.k.a. Toyota Production System)

The practice of Just-In-Time manufacturing (Fig. 1) has facilitated the delivery of products and services at a much shorter time and lower cost to customers.

However, many companies and organizations who were keen to replicate Toyota’s success might have overlooked that successful Lean organizations in Japan are built on a strong foundation of quality.

Today, the Covid-19 pandemic has re-ignited the significance of Total Quality Management (TQM) — a traditional management philosophy which was highly popular in the last few decades of the 20th century.

Based on the philosophies developed by quality management gurus such as W. Edwards Deming, Joseph M. Juran, Philip B. Crosby, Kaoru Ishikawa and Genichi Taguchi, TQM is an organizational management approach that focuses on producing quality products and services to fulfil customer needs through continuous quality improvement with leadership commitment and total employee involvement.

So what has TQM or quality got to do with Covid-19? Because of the rush to manufacture the Covid-19 vaccines and the lightning speed to distribute them globally, various defects and errors from the manufacturing process to distribution have been detected.

Examples include:

a) The discovery of foreign substances in some batches of the Moderna vaccine in Japan;

b) Millions of J&J Covid-19 vaccine doses were scrapped due to a mix-up with ingredients at a U.S. production plant;

c) A Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine batch was halted in Hong Kong and Macau as a result of defective packaging;

d) Eight workers of a care home in northeastern Germany were administered overdose of BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine;

e) Health workers in an Indian district had administered the Covaxin to 20 villagers who had been given Covishield in the first dose.

If a holistic TQM system and/or robust quality processes have been put in place, the above serious incidences of vaccine contamination, mix-up, defective packaging and administration errors could have been reduced or potentially avoided.

The TQM model (Fig. 2) developed by John Oakland serves as a useful guide to improve the products and services as well as the entire organizational management system.

Fig. 2 - Total Quality Management (TQM) Model

At the heart of Oakland's TQM model is the key concept that all work is a process — a chain of actions that produces a result. Within a company or organization, each process is treated as an internal customer of the preceding process and an internal supplier to the next downstream process.

Simply put, quality means meeting requirements. To achieve quality, both input and output requirements for the process must be satisfied. The chain continues until it reaches the external customer — the one who ultimately pays for the final product or service.

To create robust, repeatable processes that meet and exceed customer requirements require the critical support of both soft skills and hard skills.

The soft skills refer to the "triangle" (see Fig. 2) comprising Commitment, Communication and Culture:

Commitment - TQM starts at the top, where serious obsessional commitment to quality must be demonstrated; the CEO must accept the responsibility for commitment to a quality policy, and establish a quality improvement structure to satisfy customer needs, provide education and training, improve processes and review the management system.

Communication - Make everyone aware of the commitment to quality; create awareness through publicity, awareness events and make reading and viewing materials available to employees.

Culture - Establish a vision, mission and values for the organization; define roles and responsibilities and move towards common goals and objectives.

The hard skills refer to the "three circles" (see Fig. 2) consisting of Team, Tools and Systems:

Team - Form teams for governance such as a quality council, quality improvement teams, quality circles, corrective action teams, etc.

Tools - Educate teams to use data analysis tools (e.g. Pareto charts, cause-and-effect diagrams, scatter diagrams, etc.), statistical quality tools, design of experiments, Taguchi methods, etc. for continuous improvement.

Systems - Leverage on international standards such as the ISO 9001 quality management systems, Computer-Aided-Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) systems, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, Management Information Systems (MIS), etc.

In conclusion, despite being overshadowed by the more "modern" and "sexy" management philosophies such as Lean and Six Sigma and digital technology, quality is not a fad but is still highly relevant to companies and organizations today in the creation of value.

Quality problems related to the Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing and distribution processes have highlighted that quality is important in everything we do - in our personal actions, materials, information, products and services, dealings with customers and suppliers, business models and ecosystems.

Unless products and services are made better in such a way as to meet the needs and expectations of customers, there is no value in delivering them faster or making them cheaper.

Article by Allan Ung, Managing Consultant of Operational Excellence Consulting, a Singapore-based management consultancy firm that assists organizations in maximizing customer value and minimizing wastes through adoption of Lean management practices. For more information, please visit