Monday, February 27, 2006

A Brave New World for Quality

Last month I wrote about the future of our industry. I argued that a new millennium demanded a new definition of quality. The economic world we live in today is radically different than the one experienced by the architects of quality.

Much of today’s quality thinking comes from the work of Walter A. Shewhart, Joseph M. Juran, W. Edwards Deming, Armand V. Feigenbaum and Philip B. Crosby. These gentlemen developed quality theories that were appropriate to their time and the economic world they lived in.

There are a number of significant changes to our economy that require new ways of thinking about quality. However, to understand where we are today and where we’re headed, we must know where we’ve come from. Let’s look at a brief history of quality:

The 1920s. In the giddy, pre-Depression days at AT&T, Shewhart develops systems to deal with an unprecedented level of mass production for a product and a public that tolerates few defects. Along the way, he invents the control chart and the plan-do-check-act cycle, and mentors Deming and Juran.

The 1930s and 1940s. World War II forces the entire planet to alter its economy and focus on building weapons of war. Developing systems and processes to reliably deliver safe and accurate materiel was one of Juran’s greatest contributions (and one of the least known).

The 1950s. Post-World War II Japan needs to restart is economy to survive and turns to Deming and Juran to show it the way. America focuses on rebuilding Europe, winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s leading economy, and largely ignores Feigenbaum’s total quality management and the work done by Deming and Juran in Japan.

The 1960s. Crosby tells us that our standard has to be zero defects. Juran’s work is more appreciated among managers than quality professionals.

The 1970s. Crosby tells us that quality is free and makes it seem easy. The electronics industry in the United States virtually disappears. An NBC documentary, “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” introduces Deming to America.

The 1980s. Corporate America goes crazy for Deming and Juran. At last, the contributions of these two great quality thinkers are appreciated in the United States, even if they are sometimes misunderstood. Toward the end of the decade, the world gets its first taste of ISO 9000, based initially on the military quality standards of the 1950s and 1960s.

The 1990s. ISO 9000 becomes a global phenomenon, fueled in large part by the European Union’s mandate that all products sold within the EU must be from ISO 9001-registered companies. Six Sigma catches the attention of senior management in the second half of the decade when GE’s charismatic CEO Jack Welch briefly makes Six Sigma every CEO’s must-have

The 00s. ISO 9000 gets a major revision with the year 2000 version, focusing on a process approach to managing business. Six Sigma moves from the boardroom to the shop floor and into design.

Now that we know where we’ve been, where are we going? If history is any guide, we’re going to learn some tough lessons from three areas: a new business paradigm, the military and our foreign competitors.

The telecommunications revolution of the early 20th century gave us the foundation for modern quality control through the work of Shewhart, Deming and Juran. The computer software/Internet revolution of the late 20th/early 21st century will shape the future of quality just as dramatically. There is serious, pioneering, scholarly work being done by a number of people (including Capers Jones and R. Timothy Stein) to reduce defects in software development, computer system design and the entire computer system life cycle. Others are working hard to manage variation, reduce defects and improve the quality of the Internet. I’m not just talking about buying books or plane tickets online. Almost every industry, every profession, every segment of society is deeply intertwined with the Internet. This massive integration requires massive quality control.

Just as World War II required new ways of managing processes and systems to deliver safe and accurate materiel, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and on terrorism are bound to demand new thinking. We’ve already seen massive failures in our ability to provide armor and other supplies to our troops. Plus, we’ve had huge problems rebuilding the infrastructures of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Japan taught us striking new lessons in quality during the 1980s and 1990s. Now, China’s dominance in manufacturing promises to teach us again. What lessons in quality will we learn from the Chinese? Can we set aside our anger, resentment and frustration long enough to listen?

What are your thoughts on the history of quality and the new challenges from our changing global economy?