decades of Corrective Actions

Anyone born in the 1940s or 1950s knows about the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after WWII, but many are unaware of the similar effort in Japan. It was doubly important in Japan’s case to deter them from following China’s lead toward communism. Aside from investing hundreds of millions of dollars into their economy and imposing democratic rule, the US transferred technology know-how that gave Japan a huge leg-up in terms of rebuilding their manufacturing infrastructure. A major part of that transfer was a series of theories regarding Quality Control that had not yet even begun to take hold in the USA.

Two of the principal players in the effort were Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran. They taught the Japanese that the core of any successful Quality Program is a Corrective Action System. In manufacturing operations it’s often very elaborate with review meetings and incident reports, and elsewhere it might be a simple, unwritten methodology passed down as part of the company culture, but it always contains four essential elements.

  1. Define and acknowledge the problem as,
    1. open for everyone to see,
    2. acknowledged and understood by everyone affected,
    3. recognized as a “system” problem, without individual blame.
  2. Analyze the causes thoroughly, including
    1. all the potential internal and outside influences,
    2. with input from all those affected.
  3. Define candidate solutions and implement the best one.
  4. Follow up,
    1. quickly,
    2. being prepared to return to Step 1 if required.

That way of thinking is the same whether on the production line, in the office, as a customer service policy, or in personal relationships – leave out any one step and it doesn’t work.

The investment, made almost entirely by the United States, particularly the Quality part, helped rescue Japan from the effects of the war’s devastation, which would have otherwise lingered for generations. That was the good news, but there was a downside for American manufacturing that would bounce back a mere two decades later.

Fast forward a couple of decades to the 1960s. My first job after engineering school was as a field service engineer for the Delco Radio Division of General Motors. I handled customer problems and taught car dealers and independent service technicians the latest troubleshooting techniques. Delco’s formal position on product Quality at that time was to maintain the customer return rate to between 1% and 2%. The thinking was that more than 2% would alarm the car companies (Buick, Chevrolet, etc.), and less than 1% would indicate that they were spending too much on Quality. As profoundly naive as such a policy might seem today, that was the state of Quality Control in American industry at the time.

This was at a time when the Japanese car companies were quickly approaching fractional parts per million (ppm) defect rates. They had already proven that there is no cost penalty for producing good quality. It is, in fact, cheaper to make things right the first time and avoid costly rework and wasted raw materials.

It would not be until Detroit was blindsided and the entire American auto industry was brought to its knees that it would begin to understand what Deming and Juran had been telling them for 20 years.

Fast forward again, this time to the 1980s. I was managing a group of a dozen or so engineers and technicians, designing integrated circuits. This was in the early days of sub-micron silicon-gate CMOS, and there were plenty of errors to go around. A poster on the engineering office door read like this one.

“We have seen the future ***** … there are errors.”
They were preparing us for problems to come, but they were also acknowledging that we were prepared to learn from our mistakes. By then, under the guidance of Mikio Suzuki, we had learned from the Japanese (indirectly through our factory in Penang) about Corrective Action Systems and what was being called ROI[i]Rapid Ongoing Improvement.

Around that same time, I happened to be sitting in a Shinkawa[ii]Shinkowa at the time and probably still does make the industry’s finest semiconductor assembly equipment (die attach, leadbond, beam-lead, flip-chip, etc.).  conference room in Tokyo one day, peering through a window to the main entrance of the building. Every few minutes, a small truck would pull up, and the driver would jump out to deliver a package. No sooner than one truck would leave, another one would show up and do the same thing. One of the Shinkowa people noticed my fascination with the constant traffic and said to me, “Jussa In Time”. Everyone in the room, including me, of course, knew about Just In Time (JIT) manufacturing, but that was the first time I had actually seen it working. They had no capital tied up in Inventory and no inventory obsolescence. They didn’t even own a warehouse. Relying on TQC, they had perfected the JIT process to the point where they could manufacture machines the size of grand pianos with thousands of components each, on the first floor of an office building. That would have been totally impossible without having thoroughly mastered the concepts transplanted there over thirty years prior with American dollars.

Now, one final fast-forward, this time to the 2000s. I have learned a lot from these masters, from Deming and Juran to Taguchi and their hundreds of disciples over the decades and it seems to me that we can divide ourselves into two distinct categories.

– Deniers
There are those of us who can successfully skirt around problems when they occur by
(a) pretending they didn’t happen,
(b) dismissing them as “human error” or “bad luck”,
(c) saying “I’m sorry that happened”, or
(d) simply blaming someone else.
We see that in the restaurant when the waiter pours hot coffee into a cold cup and serves it lukewarm. No one bothers to ask why the customer is annoyed.
More tragic examples include clewless politicians on TV, flogging socialistic ideas that have proven counterproductive repeatedly for centuries and nobody stops to ask why those things don’t work – because it would sure feel good if they did.
– Dooers
Then there are those who celebrate mistakes in the sense that they represent opportunities for improvement. Every time something goes wrong they say, “wow, let’s figure out how to make sure that doesn’t happen again”.
Each incident adds another sweet layer of success on top of the Quality pile
– some call it Rapid Ongoing Improvement.

I certainly am not an authority on any of the teachings of the masters – far from it – but I have used their work to synthesize a simple little method for myself that I try to follow. I call it OURS to mean,

1.Own-It, – Everyone affected must be openly involved in the solution.
nderstand-It, – Make sure you have gotten to the cause before applying bandaids.
epair-It, – Look at all the options and make the best choice.
ecure-It. – Don’t assume anything and don’t hesitate to repeat the process.

The following handful of personal experiences is updated from time to time to remind myself of how it can work for me.

Recently I was reminded of a colleague who helped introduce a Corrective Action system at Mattel, the toy maker. He described how each toy had a card attached that said, “Nobody’s Perfect”. That was not intended as an excuse for bad quality – it contained customer feedback questions and was requesting that if something had gone wrong with their toy, they were asked to return it and explain the problem so Matell could learn from their mistakes (1.Own-It & 2.Understand-It). Presumably (3.Repair-It, 4.Secure-It) followed.


Today’s classic use of Corrective Action systems in customer service is on display at Amazon. In my experience, its reputation as “Earth’s most customer-centric company” is richly deserved. As hard as I have tried, I cannot catch them in an error that they are not prepared to remedy quickly and to my total satisfaction, and they don’t give up until I confirm that the problem has been solved. They live the ROI methodology to its limits, both in the online retailer capacity and as AWS. (1.Own-It, 2.Understand-It, 3.Repair-It, 4.Secure-It)


Service industries, including food, car repair, and even personal care and medicine, are not exempt from benefiting from good Corrective Action policies.

A highly skilled and well-respected oral surgeon once caused me a lot of pain and worry by injuring my jaw during a procedure. Understanding that occasional accidents are unavoidable, what happens next becomes the critical question. In this example, he continued to refer to the problem as my jaw not opening fully, and there is no doubt of that being true, but that was not the problem. The problem was the absence of the requisite special attention to that condition by some of his staff.

When he followed up with me to make sure the situation was improving; to (4.Secure-It), he continued to refer to the problem as being my “jaw problem”, overlooking their neglect. In other words, he completely missed the (1.Own-It) part, which made it impossible for him or his staff to learn from the experience. Thinking that my “preexisting condition” was “the problem”, guarantees that the problem will reoccur.


At Patchen, we don’t often have a dissatisfied customer but my version of product quality improvement is to personally respond by delivering and installing a replacement Christmas tree and asking the customer to help me understand what went wrong.[iii]It is almost always a case of no water in the stand or putting the tree in direct sunlight or next to a heater. I then invite them to come back next year for a free tree to thank them for their cooperation and to remind our staff to be more clear when advising customers about tree care. (1.Own-It, 2.Understand-It, 3.Repair-It, 4.Secure-It)


Government bureaucracies are classic examples of the absence of workable Corrective Action Systems. By design, they have no intention of solving problems. Instead, by their very nature, they “work on problems”, they “prolong problems”, and they are notorious for “creating problems”, in order to preserve the bureaucracy. Solving them is not in their best interest. One only needs to watch the evening news to see how that works doesn’t work.

By: Jim
Written: circa 2005
Published: February 2021
Revised: June 2022 (the jaw anictdote)
Revised: July 2022 (revised acronym)
Reader feedback always appreciated
i Rapid Ongoing Improvement
ii Shinkowa at the time and probably still does make the industry’s finest semiconductor assembly equipment (die attach, leadbond, beam-lead, flip-chip, etc.).
iii It is almost always a case of no water in the stand or putting the tree in direct sunlight or next to a heater.