The Emergence of Social Responsibility

In 1993, I did a lecture tour of Brazil, for the US Information Agency (USIA). My lectures were about quality and process improvement, through union-management collaboration. At one of my lectures, I was presented with a copy of the book that the recent UN Earth Summit attendees had received in Rio de Janeiro. This was the conference where Al Gore really learned about global ecological issues, and the challenges of sustainability. The following year, I worked with the group “NJ Future,” to help define measures of sustainability for the citizens of New Jersey.

The common element in these experiences was the basic three-part model of sustainability. The UN Summit model talked about ecological concerns, economic opportunity, and a form of “social justice.” Some models advocated overtly for “equitable income distribution.” For those in the field of “quality improvement,” there has been a growing interest in defining “social responsibility,” particularly as it relates to the work of quality, and process improvement.

ASQ Executive Director Paul Borawski writes that it is “natural” for organizations focusing on social responsibility, to turn to ASQ and the quality improvement profession. For me, the answer to this issue is more of a “yes, if…” than a “yes, for sure” sort of response.

Let’s think about what we mean by “quality,” and what we mean by “social responsibility.” Some of the quality improvement pioneers defined quality in what I call “static” terms. We can assert and even verify that a product conforms completely to specification, 100% of the time. We can even say that in the mind of the customer, the product meets or exceeds their expectations. That inter-relational dynamic is more of a “dynamic” definition of quality, as a few of the quality pioneers have described it.

Does that kind of quality assurance and improvement necessarily relate to “social responsibility?” Again, what do we mean by “social responsibility?” I grew up in Syracuse, New York. Nearby Onondaga Lake was literally killed, by years of toxic waste poured in by the adjacent Solvay Processing chemical plant. Was that responsible? It created jobs and wealth for the local economy, but it destroyed the lake’s living ecosystem, and made it unsafe to swim in the lake. Before modern attempts to clean up and revitalize the lake, you could smell the acrid fumes rising from the water at the park nearby.

In the past, we humans have engaged in “as if…” thinking and behavior with regard to our environment and natural resources. We have acted “as if” these were unlimited, and as if we could exploit them in any way we chose, without regard for the consequences of our actions. Today, we are passing the peak in global oil production. Most of the rivers in China are no longer safe, because of industrial waste. Glaciers are receding even as deserts are growing.

So what of the links between quality and social responsibility? McDonald’s assures that every Big Mac meets its specifications, virtually all of the time. Is it a “socially responsible” firm? What about Wal-Mart, who will build in a smaller suburban or rural market, driving small community stores out of business? Is that “responsible?”

The notion of “social responsibility” is complex, and highly varied. Its meaning is typically dependent on localized community norms, values, and culture. What I think of as irresponsible, you may find essential to sustain your business. First Lady Michelle Obama, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are both advocating healthier foods for children in schools. Yet this alleged “socially responsible” idea is critiqued by some, largely on political ideological grounds.

Personally, I recommend as a starting point in defining “social responsibility,” the wording of the Golden Rule taught by the Biblical scholar, Hillel. He taught “do not do unto your neighbor, that which you would not want done to you.” In the turn of words from the “do unto…” to the “do not do unto…” I find a sense of of real social responsibility. We are urged to consider the consequences of our actions on those around us. This to me, is the foundation of social responsibility.

With regard to Paul Borawski’s point, I would respectfully then disagree. Many organizations which achieve proven quality and process improvement, have done so without considering the consequences of their actions on others around them. Where I believe there is common ground between the quality improvement and social responsibility fields, is in the dynamics and processes of crafting change. W. Edwards Deming, the great pioneer of the quality improvement movement, was a fantastic student of the psychology of the workplace. Deming urged appreciation of the workers, and the restoration of their pride in accomplishment. Deming demanded that managers “drive out fear” from the workplace. Deming’s student Peter Scholtes, carried these ideas forward, writing the best-selling TEAM handbook, with Brian Joiner. In quality and process improvement, as in the work of defining an agenda of social responsibility, we depend on respectful dialogue and collaboration to create the way forward.

When we gather to address our concerns and problems, and when we do so in a respectful collaborative way, we open the space where both better quality, and more responsibility, can emerge.

Bruce Waltuck

Paul Borawski’s blog on quality and social responsibility:

oh yeah… I must tell you I am one of ASQ’s designated “Voice of Influence” bloggers. I get a small compensation for these ASQ-related blog posts. But the ideas expressed here are completely my own.

This entry was posted in ASQ, Change, Continuous Process Improvement, Dialogue, Social Responsibility. Bookmark the permalink.

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