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Quality Work: Using the Zero Defects Principle to Motivate Your Team

Executive Summary

Some managers may wonder what they should motivate your team to do.

  • Brian Tracy covers motivation in a brief book included in his Success Library, and suggests that quality work is the primary goal of motivating employees.
  • One of his leadership theories is that employees will match the boss's attitude toward quality work and excellent performance.
  • Using a story about Henry Kissinger's intern, Tracy reveals a few easy ways managers can demonstrate their affinity for quality work so that it motivates their team to strive for the absolute best result they can produce.

Fully 90 percent of business success will be determined by your ability to produce a great product or service in the first place.

The PIMS (Profit Impact of Marketing Strategy) studies, conducted at Harvard over many years and embracing hundreds of companies, demonstrated that there is a direct relationship between the perceived quality of the product or service you produce and the profitability of your organization.

The most profitable companies—the ones that can charge the highest prices and earn the highest profit margins—are always those that are perceived in the market as being the highest-quality providers in their areas of business activity.

It is the same with individuals. If you want people to feel like winners, you must create an environment where they are encouraged to win.

And winning in the world of work largely means doing work of excellent quality and being recognized for that work.

Quality Is Free

Philip Crosby, at his Quality College and in his book Quality Is Free, defined quality this way: “Quality means that the product or service you sell does what you said it would do when the customer bought it, and continues to do it. Your quality rating is determined by the percentage of times that your product continues to deliver on its promises.”

The highest quality rating is called “zero defects.” This rating means that your product or service always does what you said it would do when you sold it to your customer.

By the same token, individuals can receive a personal quality rating. When people always do their jobs in an excellent fashion 100 percent of the time, consistently over time, they also earn a “zero defects” rating.

With the zero defects principle, you encourage everyone to concentrate on doing quality work and producing quality products and services. If you are the leader of the company, you make an organization-wide commitment to excellence. You get every employee to continually think in terms of doing an excellent job, every time.

Set High-Quality Standards

By initiating the zero defects concept, you set a standard of 100 percent quality. This means no mistakes and no defects. You want to make a big deal out of the quality work of each individual.

Acknowledge, reward, recognize, and reinforce quality whenever you see it. It is said that people tend to perform at their best under the most demanding of bosses. The boss sets the tone for the whole organization. That’s why the boss’s attitude toward quality and excellence will set the standard for everyone else.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger leads a meeting on January 6, 1983 at the State Department as chairman of President Reagan's Bipartisan Commission on Central America. | Photo by Mark Reinstein

Send It Back

There is a famous story told about Henry Kissinger when he was secretary of state. He asked a subordinate to produce a report on an important national issue.

The subordinate brought him the report, and Kissinger said that he would look at it and talk to him about it the following day. When the subordinate came in the following day, Kissinger gave him the report back and said that it was not yet good enough and that he could do a much better job if he took a little bit more time to polish and perfect it.

The subordinate went away to work on it again for the next two or three days. Once more, he brought the report back to Kissinger, who again reviewed it overnight. The following day, Kissinger returned the report to the subordinate and said that it was still not good enough.

He would have to work even harder to polish the report for it to be of sufficient quality. Once again, the subordinate took the report away and worked on it for another two or three days.

Finally, the subordinate returned to Kissinger with the report. This time, he said that it was the very best report he could possibly write. There was nothing he could do to improve it in any way. If Kissinger was not satisfied with the report in its current form, the subordinate said, there was nothing he could do to make it any better.

At this, Kissinger replied, “Well, if you are completely convinced that it cannot be any better, I will now read it for the first time.”

Set a Good Example

In addition to demanding high standards of quality in the work of each person, you must set an example of high-quality work yourself. You lead the way. You are the role model. When you do excellent work—work that is obviously the result of “going the extra mile”—you set a standard for everyone who works for you and with you. Every time a person does an excellent job, his self-esteem goes up. Every time people do an average job and others accept it, their self-esteem remains unaffected. And when they do a poor job that is allowed to pass, their self-esteem actually goes down. When people do poor-quality work, they feel a little bit inferior and a lot like losers in the world of work. When someone does an excellent job and is recognized, rewarded, and appreciated for doing so, that person feels like a winner. But very few people can do an excellent job unless someone sets a standard of superior quality for them and then holds them to that standard. Zero defects is a wonderful target to aim for.

The Value of Quality Work

Going back to our previous discussion about values (in Chapter Eight), it is important that you explain to your staff members that the survival and success of your business is dependent on the quality of the work that you produce.

Encourage them to strive to do a perfect job every time. Even in small things, such as writing a letter, an email, or advertising copy, little things mean a lot. By insisting that every piece of correspondence or communication from the company is letter-perfect, carefully proofed, and edited so that there are no mistakes, you set a standard of excellence that permeates and spreads through the entire organization.

Accuracy, precision, and perfection are essential when producing a proposal for a customer or completing an order form for a purchase or sale. When people receive any form of written correspondence from your organization, they immediately judge the entire quality of the company—including its products, services, and people—by the accuracy and mistake-free nature of the communication.

When one of your employees does something of superior quality, make it a big deal. Remember, you’re going to get more of whatever you recognize, reward, and reinforce. When you constantly remind people of the importance of doing excellent quality work, you set an ideal that more and more of your people will aspire to. As they aspire to ever-higher ideals of quality work, their self-image improves and their self-esteem goes up. They are even more motivated to do even better work in the future.


  1. Set standards of excellent performance for every job, product, or service that goes to your customers, and make sure that each person on your staff knows exactly what they are.
  2. Set an example by doing high-quality work yourself, in every area, and by continually striving to become even better at the most important things you do.
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Brian Tracy

Brian Tracy is the Chairman and CEO of Brian Tracy International, a company specializing in the training and development of individuals and organizations. One of the top business speakers and authorities in the world today, he has consulted for more than 1,000 companies and addressed more than 5,000,000 people in 5,000 talks and seminars throughout the United States and more than 60 countries worldwide. He has written 55 books and produced more than 500 audio and video learning programs on management, motivation, and personal success.

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