Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Future of Quality

One of the fun parts of being a columnist is that you get to opine on whatever strikes your fancy, as long as it somewhat relevant to the magazine’s general content. You also get to make predictions without having to worry about having a ton of supporting data. Sure, I can be wrong, but as long as what I write is moderately informative/interesting/amusing/entertaining, the editors will keep publishing it.

So, having laid the foundation for what comes next, it’s time to once again to gaze into my crystal ball and make predictions about the future of quality. I periodically have this ridiculous urge to make predictions. I am frequently wrong, (and occasionally right), but, hey, who’s perfect?

Prediction no. 1: After declining for the past decade, quality will take on a new importance within organizations and the government. There are several reasons for this. First, the much-touted “new global economy” (or flat world) is finally here. And despite all the wonders it has wrought, quality has suffered. Tainted pet food, poisoned tooth paste, and lead-coated toys are just a few of the more obvious signs that quality basics like design, auditing, inspection, calibration, etc. are still essential to protecting customers. Although we in the West may disregard such flagrant signs of poor quality as those I mentioned earlier, don’t forget that it was Western companies that had these products made for them. Therefore, we need to do a better job of managing our suppliers (and their quality systems).

Second, our aging infrastructure needs help. Collapsing bridges are just one of the more obvious signs that our industrial revolution infrastructure is getting pretty old. We will need to spend billions of dollars updating and retrofitting it. And we will want to make sure that it is of the highest quality.

Third, despite your feelings about Al Gore (and who doesn’t have strong feelings about Al, one way or the other?) and global warming, there is no doubt that our economy will adjust to it (the hype about global warming that is, not Al). We are already selling hybrid vehicles, installing solar panels on millions of buildings, building ethanol processing facilities, and replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones. I believe that these changes will continue to accelerate, culminating in a new and nonpolluting energy source that makes oil (and the countries that produce and export it) obsolete.

This will be the equivalent of a new industrial revolution, creating millions of new jobs and powering a dynamic economy. The solution to our energy/global warming crisis will probably be many faceted and complex, but there’s no doubt that new production facilities and whole new infrastructures will be required. (Let’s hope it is the U.S. economy that benefits.) Of course, all this new technology will require quality professionals to make sure that good quality processes are designed, implemented, and followed.

Of course, new industries/technologies/professions will require new regulations and new standards. That leads me to prediction no. 2: Standards will be become even more widespread and diverse than they are now.

As most of you know, ISO 9001 and ISO 9004 are due to be updated next year. In fact, most of the work on the revision is already done and the committee charged with revising the standard—ISO/TC 176—is putting the finishing touches on the revision and making sure all the different countries involved in approving the standard are happy, which is no easy task. ISO 9001:2008 will then go through several rounds of voting before it is approved.

My sources on the committee tell me that the revisions are pretty minor. This is probably a good thing, both in terms of keeping companies who are using the standard happy and to keep the standard generic, so that it can continue to be used as a platform for industry-specific standards like ISO/TS 16949 and AS9100.

It will also allow the standard to continue to be widely implemented globally in this new flat world. China is already has the most ISO 9001-registered companies in the world, but it has a long way to go both in registering companies and improving its certification process.

Of course, this continued focus on standards and the new standards spawned by new technologies will require quality professionals and auditors. It will also require an even greater knowledge of quality principles by management and workers at all levels. This leads us back to my first prediction.

So, prediction no. 4 is that all those people out there who have been predicting the death of quality will have to eat their words.


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