The Right “Q” for Turbulent Times: the past, present & future of the quality movement

Do you know what your organization stands for?  When you see a question like that, it may call to mind an actual mission or vision statement.  For many, it suggests a sense of the core value or values that influence what your organization does (U.S. Marines = “Semper Fi.” Patagonia = “Let My People Go…Surfing”).  In a more literal sense, we can look at the letters in the name of our organization, and think about what they mean to us (or others).

The well-known organization for seniors – oops, for people over 50 – is legally just known as “AARP.”  They stand for various kinds of advocacy in behalf of their target demographic.  For many years, the letters stood for “American Association of Retired Persons” (sorry, citizens of other countries).  But as life expectancy changed, and retirement ages changed, so too did AARP.

An organization with which I have been affiliated for many years, is ASQ.  Like AARP, the letters today are the legal name of the organization.  Before the lawyers did their thing, ASQ stood for the American Society for Quality.  One reason for the change is that ASQ DOES include members from many nations around the world.  But, as with AARP, things changed.  At the time the Society was founded, ASQ was actually ASQC – the American Society for Quality Control.  This reflected the organizations origins in mid-20th-century methods of statistical process control, to reduce unwanted variation in manufactured products.  Definitions of “quality” specifically referred to “conformance to specification” and “freedom from defects.”  The clear implication in all of this – perhaps we might say, what the organization stood for – was that the ways people worked in organizations, and the results they achieved, were manageable and controllable.

Recently, ASQ chief executive Paul Borawski, wrote about the “past, and future of quality and ASQ.” http://asq.org/blog/2011/08/the-past-the-future-quality-and-asq/ Paul begins his blog post by noting that when asked, only about one-third of the people in his audiences have heard of the late quality and business improvement pioneer, W. Edwards Deming.  But just as my question at the start of this post may have unintentionally misled your thinking in response, so too might Paul’s question about Deming.

Instead of asking “have you ever heard of Deming?” Paul might have asked “how many here today would like to learn a pretty simple and straightforward system of profound knowledge, that will help you maintain constant purpose; drive fear out of your organization; restore pride to your workers; drive down costs, and improve quality – all at the same time?”  Do you think only one-third of the audience would have responded favorably?  I think otherwise.

How we phrase and frame questions DOES make a difference.  Just as the names of ASQ and others organizations have changed, to reflect changes in the world around us, so too do our responses about the future of quality” or “the future of ASQ” change, depending on the question we are asked.

In my own work over the past 10 years, I’ve taught extensively about the future of quality, and the quality improvement movement.  Wall Street Journal famously reported that around 75% of improvement initiatives fail.  So do we ask people today “do you care about quality?” or perhaps, “what can we do together, to make our products and services be better in the eyes of our customers; take less time to produce; cost less; and result in more satisfied employees and stakeholders?”  For more than a decade, both business leaders, and business students, have exhibited declining interest in “quality.”

Perhaps we all might be better-served, if we asked each other questions aimed at building the future we want, rather than just recalling the past.  After all, things change.  What do we stand for?

Bruce Waltuck has been a Senior Member of ASQ, and a past-chair of the Government Division.  He has been an active member-leader, presenting at many conferences throughout the country.  Bruce has worked extensively within ASQ on how the Society views itself, and its future.  Bruce is also a leading advocate for viewing quality and change leadership through the lens of complex systems science.  Bruce posts on Twitter as @complexified.  Please note that Bruce is a Voices of Influence blogger for ASQ.  As such there is a very (very) small compensation, but the words and ideas here are Bruce’s own.

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5 Responses to The Right “Q” for Turbulent Times: the past, present & future of the quality movement

  1. guywwallace says:

    If one had asked: “how many here today would like to learn a pretty simple and straightforward system of profound knowledge, that will help you maintain constant purpose; drive fear out of your organization; restore pride to your workers; drive down costs, and improve quality – all at the same time?” – Yes more than one-third would most likely have responded favorably.

    But then to not know that Deming – who developed such – had been talking about this for almost 40 years in the US of A to no avail (until that NBC TV White Paper where we learned “he saved Japan”) – and that after his message and methods did take hold, it too soon lost it’s grip after only a couple of short decades – and that might help others appreciate the struggle that they are in for. That’s it will be no “slam dunk.” And that they had better learn some strategies and tactics that might give their efforts a longer shelf life – is, I think something to be learned from THAT past that is valuable. That those who do not know history are doomed to repeat. To be forewarned is to be (hopefully) better forearmed. Etc.

    I’m not sure Paul was asking to only look in the past – nor do I mean to suggest that you mean to only look to the future and to just forget the past.

    I believe that it will take both. A blend. And good, well phrased questions – aimed both forward and backward. Such as: Have you heard of Deming? Those that have, what did he do, stand for, etc. Why do you think that that lost traction? And to everyone, now that we’re all up to speed, what do all of you think can be done or should be done to counter that – to better insure greater and longer traction, sustainability?

    Like Socrates – we may need to learn how to ask a series of eye/mind opening questions (like those from good lawyers who already know the answers) to lead ourselves collectively to the key questions – and more importantly, to the key answers. If there be such. 🙂

    Thanks for your post!

  2. complexified says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I would agree that Paul was not suggesting we only look to the past, nor was I suggesting we only look to the future. What I would suggest is that yes, we need to be as well-informed as we can be in making decisions and acting into the unknown future. My point was more that how we define and ask our questions, definitely affects the answers we get – and the understanding and action that flows from that exchange. I think your alternate set of questions supports that. With regard to ASQ and the future of the quality improvement movement, it has been my belief for more than ten years, that the Society remains too much in its past, particularly in its understanding of its own ability to make its future. By this, I mean that many leaders within the Society are themselves heavily biased towards the view of organization as machine, which leads to typical command-and-control thinking/doing. We have ALWAYS been in organizations that were inherently complex, simply because we humans behave in complex ways. Over time, the global markets and technologies that affect us, have accelerated and increased that complexity.

    It is my belief that different skills, different methods, are needed in order to best meet the challenges of our uncertain future. In this, I take inspiration both from the genius of Deming, and the modern-day genius of teachers such as Ron Heifetz, Dave Snowden, Glenda Eoyang, and Dick Knowles. They, like Deming, recognize that there is a difference between a statistically controllable complicated process, and a complex human process that requires agility, adaptability, and resilience to navigate change.

    The future of the quality movement, and of ASQ, will greatly depend on how we view both our past, and our future. Will we cling to paradigms that no longer work, and forms of governance that minimize innovation, or will we open the doors to ways that recognize the true nature of our organizational dynamics, and which encourage safe universal input, exploration of the “adjacent possible,” and adoption of new forms of relating and doing?

    – Bruce W

  3. guywwallace says:

    Agreed! Much as Deming wrote and spoke of many times – it’s a management issue! If people in a professional group don’t know enough about the past – whose fault is that? If their view of the future is just more rear-view mirror views – whose fault is that?

    I’ve just gotten around to reading “The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education” and am switching back and forth with “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back” (Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum). I haven’t gotten into either very far yet – but it is interesting to see the parallels between them – at least in the early chapters.

    The trick I think is to do some of the old things in both old and new ways – or living with it as it is and looking to an entirely different future. Reducing variation may still be key – but not at the cost of stifling innovation – and/or inhibiting discontinuous improvement of product or process – to focus on getting to Six Sigma.

    I often feel that progress is held back by a lot of semantics – our imprecise language and differentiated use of terms that hangs us up way too often. I don’t know that that can be solved (who is to change?). Everyone needs to slow down, test understanding and summarize – forms of Active Listening – much more. Be more ready to acknowledge: “I don’t understand” – than think/state: “you are wrong.” And also do real listening and reflection before quickly responding. Hard to do when everyone is so rushed and time is of the essence.

    So – if you were ASQ’s CEO for a year or two- Where would you start? What would be your early objectives? And where would you like to see the organization be in a year or two?

    What questions would you ask in order to lead?

    Cheers!

    • complexified says:

      Just a quick comment or two regarding ASQ. As a longtime member-leader, I have been involved with ASQ governance issues for over ten years. Like many, I have my opinions on a variety of ASQ issues. In 2010, at the WCQI in St. Louis, i happened to walk into Starbucks for a coffee. Sitting there were Paul Borawski and Pete Andres. I ended up talking with them for over an hour – a wonderful and rare opportunity for an informal exchange of ideas.

      So, a few quick ideas:

      – What does “quality” mean in today’s world? (for 10 years I have been advocating a rethink based on a relational dynamic between maker/giver and user/recipient)

      -Who else needs to be at the table to discuss quality and ASQ’s future? Why is this a limited sample given today’s technologies (blog, listserv, wiki, SenseMaker(tm) etc.

      -On the shop floor, deviation from the goal is considered bad, and eliminated. In human dynamics, Positive Deviants are not “background noise” but the sources of powerful improvement. What will ASQ do to encourage learning from its own PD’s?

      -the Bylaws of ASQ mandate open and inclusive governance. Yet there are member-leaders, even at fairly high levels within the organization, who believe their input has been denied. What are Paul, the senior leaders, and the Board, doing to assure that the bylaws are being honored for all?

      – it is my opinion that the structure of ASQ, divided between location-based Sections, and interest-based Divisions, has created certain tensions and conflicts. This is especially true regarding revenue generation and allocation. With today’s technologies for virtual meetings and more, is there a new and better way to organize the membership for improved service and productivity?

      -ASQ has expended considerable funds in recent years to change its website and improve IT services to members and business units (sections and divisions). Why was there a perceived need to build internal social media networks, when so many members were already on linkedIn and facebook for free? Why did ASQ decide on WebEx for webinar services, instead of the much much cheaper and easy to use Go To Meeting?

      These are not all aimed at big picture strategy of course. But you can see some of my thinking here. I believe ASQ has been challenged in recent years, to overcome its own history- the mindset rooted in the “control” model. Successful organizations today must walk the talk with regard to agility, adaptability, and innovation.

      Bruce

  4. guywwallace says:

    Good questions – for both the leaders and followers of ASQ to ponder and discuss.

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