The College of Business

The Role of Creativity in Quality

James R. Evans*

In 1994, three companies received the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award: AT&T Consumer Communications Services (CCS), GTE Directories Corporation, and Wainwright Industries. AT&T CCS – the long-distance provider – and GTE Directories – which publishes and sells advertising for telephone directories – are large, innovative firms, with sophisticated technologies and human resource development activities that support empowered teams and foster an atmosphere of creativity throughout their organizations. Both companies also offer a wide variety of training and education courses, including courses devoted specifically to creativity and innovation. It is not surprising that they have achieved remarkable results in product and service quality, customer satisfaction, and in various operational and financial measures.

Wainwright Industries, headquartered in St. Peters, Missouri, is considerably different from CCS and GTE. Wainwright is a small, family-owned business that manufactures stamped and machined parts for the automotive and other industries. Since initiating continuous improvement processes in 1991, customer satisfaction, defect and scrap rates, work-related accidents, manufacturing cycle times, and quality costs have shown continual, and sometimes dramatic improvements. At the same time, market share, productivity gains, and profit margins have all increased.

Innovation is a way of life at Wainwright. Each associate averages more than one implemented improvement per week! That's over 50 each year, in an industry that averages at most one suggestion per employee per year in the U.S. Wainwright does not have the comparable resources available to large corporations like AT&T or GTE. The company spends a relatively high proportion of its budget on training, some of which is outsourced, yet no formal creativity training is offered. What the company does have is a culture that exudes a spirit of creativity and innovation far different than most large corporations that has contributed to its success. The plant has a folksy, Midwestern atmosphere. Everyone – up to the chairman of the board – wears a company uniform with his or her first name stitched on it. The human resources function is called "The People Zone."

The training director is known simply as "The Training Guy." And a stuffed duck is the company's mascot and symbol of quality leadership.

Wainwright is an excellent example of how creativity, integrated within a traditional American company, can lead to exceptional improvements in quality and business performance. More importantly, when visitors tour the plant, they see clearly the spirit and enthusiasm exuded by Wainwright associates. The associates are having fun! Improving quality – and work itself – should be fun. People have fun when they are creative.

Over time, creativity has been viewed as divine inspiration, a form of madness, a highly developed form of intuition, a manifestation of the creative force inherent in life itself, and a cosmic force central to the universe.1 These speculative theories don't provide much of a working definition to help us become more creative. Simply put, creativity is the ability to generate novel ideas, develop new things, or to discover new relationships; to look at existing things from new perspectives and modify or improve them, or to form new combinations from two or more things or ideas.

Creativity and innovation are linked closely to productivity and competitive success. W. Edwards Deming used several examples that show the importance of innovation in today's business world. He pointed to agriculture as an industry that has continually responded with new and innovative methods and processes, while the best builders of automotive carburetors went out of business because they failed to recognize the importance of the fuel injector. Many other examples, such as the fax machine, cable television, internet, and World Wide Web illustrate the importance of continuous and creative change. Few organizations will prosper in the coming century without developing and exploiting the creativity of its people.

Creativity is an important aspect of total quality, and both subjects have much in common. In fact, much of the quality success of Japanese companies is due to creative solutions to manufacturing problems. Some of the best examples of creativity through kaizen are poka-yoke, or fail-safing, devices.2 A poka-yoke is a device that permanently prevents the recurrence of a defect it is designed to eliminate. They are highly creative and typically quite inexpensive and deceptively simple. One example is installing a device on a drill that counts the number of holes drilled in a workpiece; a buzzer sounds if the workpiece is removed before the correct number of holes have been drilled. To ensure that critical bolts are tightened on automobiles at a Toyota plant, the wrenches are kept in a bucket of dye. When a bolt has been missed, it lacks the visible color. At Motorola, a group of workers designed a clear template with keyboard characters positioned slightly off center. By holding the template over the keyboard, assembly mistakes are easily found. Hospitals use trays for surgical instruments with indentations for each instrument, preventing one from inadvertently being left inside a patient. Another example is ensuring that the lock on an airplane lavatory door is engaged whenever the light is turned on.

In our quest to capitalize on fads that have arisen in the quality movement, such as statistical process control or benchmarking, for example, many quality initiatives become simple clones of one another. They lack the innovation that results in breakthrough performance. Creative thinking approaches – beyond simple brainstorming – have much to offer quality practitioners and should be an integral part of modern training in all companies.

  1. George F. Kneller, The Art and Science of Creativity (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965).
  2. See Poka-Yoke: Improving Product Quality by Preventing Defects, edited by NKS/Factory Magazine, Cambridge, MA: Productivity Press 1988 and Richard B. Chase and Douglas M. Stewart, Mistake-Proofing: Designing Errors Out, Portland, OR: Productivity Press, 1995.


*James R. Evans is a Professor of Quantitative Methods in the College of Business Administration at University of Cincinnati