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.