The Q-word, and the future of the “Quality Movement”

First, the up-front disclaimer.  The American Society for Quality (rightly wishing these days to be known simply as “ASQ”), has asked me to participate in their new social media initiative.  I am one of a number of people identified as “Voices of Influence.”  For those who follow such things, I have been a leading voice on the evolving work of quality, process, and organizational improvement for over a decade.  My work has been published in the Journal for Quality and Participation, Quality Digest, and more.  For several years, I ran the ASQ discussion board on re-thinking “quality” through the lens of complex adaptive systems.  It has been my privilege and pleasure to have taught and presented throughout the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and Southeast Asia, on the work of quality and process improvement.

So, ASQ has asked me to occasionally post here, in response to posts made by Paul Borawski, ASQ’s Executive Director.  I’ve known Paul for years, and we had a great chat for over an hour at the WCQI conference in St. Louis last May.  We do not see eye-to-eye on the issues confronting ASQ and the global quality movement, and I think that is a good thing.  It is through the diversity of our thinking, that new ideas and opportunities emerge.

To get the legal bit out of the way, here is the disclaimer that I am supposed to share with you about my participation in this ASQ effort:

I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive a variety of quality resources as honorarium from ASQ in exchange for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own.

OK, that takes care of the legal bits.  On to the real issues at hand.

In his own blog post, at     Paul writes about the future of the global quality movement.  He asks what it would take, to get the world’s attention focused on the true value of quality improvement.

My own thinking on this, revolves around several points:

1- What is “quality?”  In 2002 I gave the first in a series of presentations on moving towards “a new definition of quality.”  The traditional definitions, offered by experts such as Juran and Crosby, seemed to focus on the makers of products:  “fitness for use” or “conformance to specification.”  A few of the quality pioneers, such as Val Feigenbaum, and W. Edwards Deming, understood the role of the customer in defining quality.  They noted that fitness, or specification, not only come from the wants and needs of the customer, but they are often fluid and dynamic characteristics, and subject to change.  In other words, hard to know, when you are making and providing products and services.

Since 2002, I’ve talked about re-thinking what we mean by “quality.”  I can show you a costly fountain pen, and assure you that it is fit for use.  I can guarantee that it conforms to your specification.  So what?  The true “quality” of that pen only comes to life in the moment when you, the customer, use it as you wish and intend.  Referring to the constructs of modern physics, I call this “Quantum Quality.”  It is the interaction of product/service, and customer/user, that really define quality.  Often “unknown and unknowable” in advance.  The implications for makers servers, is significant.  The most successful organizations already get it, no matter what they call it.

2- ASQ may still be”out to C.”  At its inception, ASQ was ASQC- the American Society for Quality Control.  This reflected the origins of the quality improvement movement, in the use of statistical methods for controlling unwanted variation in manufacturing.  Making complicated products today still requires and uses these methods.  A modern car has around 20,000 parts.  We need, and want, the processes of manufacturing to be as stable, predictable, and controllable as possible.  On the shop floor, we can work to bring the process under control.  The people who founded ASQ, many of whom still lead the Society today, come from the world of manufacturing.  They are “process control people.”  But as much as we might want to pretend that the world of our human interactions and processes are predictable and controllable, in fact we know they are not.  Increasing complexity in society and in global business markets, has been noted as a serious concern by CEOs.  Yet organizations continue to act in what I call the “AS IF” mode.  Treating the truly complex challenges of changing people’s beliefs and behaviors in organizations, AS IF they were statistically controllable processes on the shop floor.

It is my belief that the way forward for any organization – ASQ or any other – lies in the recognition that improving the outcomes in complex human processes, requires a very different understanding and response, than the work of improving even the most complicated manufacturing process (of course, some of both are always present – just ask Toyota!).  The challenge for ASQ, in my view, is to open itself up to new forms of organizing and collaboration, in response to the complexity of organizational change.

3- The “Q-word” and the future of the quality improvement movement.  For over a decade, it has been my belief that trying to “sell quality” to organizations has been an increasingly hard and useless task.  Useless?  Not int he sense of quality’s inherent value to anyone.  The lessons of Deming and the others are as critical today as they ever were.  What I mean, is that “quality” is too-often associated with failed efforts of the past.  “Didn’t we do that TQM stuff back in the 80s?” “Isn’t Lean the way to go now?” “Isn’t agile the next big thing in software development?”  What IS the “next big thing?”  For ASQ and others in the current quality movement, I believe it is long past time to talk primarily about quality.  Like the recent changes with the Baldrige award, I believe ASQ and its global community of interest, should re-think their brand and their marketing.  In May 2001, I wrote to ASQ leadership with suggestions to drop the “Q-word,” and turn to a focus on continuous process improvement.  It is also long past time to change to an organizational name truly reflecting ASQ’s global community.

As we open the pathways of connection among us all, and freely share information and ideas, we will find new ways to act together into the future.

As a long-time member and leader within ASQ, I sincerely hope the Society can adapt to the new realities in the world, and make the pursuit of excellence the centerpiece of its brand.

Bruce Waltuck, M.A., Complexity, Chaos, and Creativity

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One Response to The Q-word, and the future of the “Quality Movement”

  1. KerrieAnne Christian says:

    great to read this blog post – I’m an AS! member & I’ve been invited to join in too – so I am really keen to learn and share with other folks passionate about quality

    @KerrieAnne from DownUnder Australia

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