Is the Quality Profession Evolving or Disappearing?

Photo: W. J. Latzko, Ph.D.
W. J. Latzko, Ph.D.

In 1980 a revolution started. Quality became a management issue and corporations were vying with one another to stress the importance of quality in their organization. Today these voices are few and far between. What happened?

On June 24th, 1980, NBC aired an 90 minute white paper called, “If Japan Can … Why Can’t We?”(Crawford-Mason, Frank, Lockhart, & Dobyns, 1980). C. S. Kilian a biography of W. Edwards Deming stated that Claire Crawford-Mason wrote “In the 1970s, Americans had found two easy targets to blame for their economic woes: inflation and high energy costs. . . . Other people interviewed pointed to the adversarial relationship between government and industry”. Mrs. Crawford-Mason went on to describe that while 14 million households viewed the program (a reasonable number for a documentary, according to her), the show became the most requested program of all time. She stated, “One reason this program has generated so much continued interest is because of the powerful, relevant message of one man who was featured in the documentary: Dr. W. Edwards Deming”(Kilian, 1992).

For one and a half decades the interest grew in intensity, leveled off, and may be in a decline at this time. In a way this is reflected in the membership levels of ASQ and the section. One can speculate on the reason for this decline and we propose to do so below. However, the importance of the change is in how it impacts us, the quality professionals.

Quality is King
While quality was being emphasized, quality professionals became as recognized in the organization as other contributors such as finance, marketing, etc. Job titles tended to reflect this increased importance with many more vice presidents for quality appearing in organizations than existed before. Some departments grew rapidly. Salaries were in line with what other significant corporate contributors were earning. The increase in staff levels may have even led to shortages which in turn would help increase starting salaries.

The period of emphasis on quality coincided with (and probably contributed to) economic prosperity. At the turn of this century, increasing economic prosperity stopped. The impact was that executives started to look at areas that they considered to be non-contributors to the organization with a view of making these areas contribute or get rid of them. For a number of reasons, this resulted in a de-emphasis of many aspects that contributed to quality in the past. It translates into fewer quality professionals.

What happened? In my opinion it is the conflict with two methods to check quality: inspection and process control.

Inspection versus Process Control
Inspection dates from ancient times. For example, the code of Hammurabi (c. 1730 BC) specified commercial transactions and had rules for checking (inspection) and enforcing these codes. Dr. Juran often pointed to the Egyptian inspectors. The Byzantines had an officer of the court called a Logothete whose task it was to inspect workplaces to see that they conformed to standards. The method of assuring conformance was inspection. We still do it today. Inspection probably worked well as long as one talks about crafts where the whole product is made by one person. However, with the advance of technology and newer production methods, the age of the single craftsman is receding and inspection no longer as effective in both cost and output.

In the 1920’s Dr. Walter Shewhart formulated a method that met the needs of modern production. It is process control. The emphasis in process control is not on the product but on the process that produces the product. By making the process fail safe, only good output is created. This saves the cost of scrapping or reworking bad output and leads to greater customer satisfaction which in turn often leads to more sales and profits.

Until the 1980’s the bulk of quality operations in the USA used the inspection method. Key in this process was MIL-STD-105, Sampling Procedure and Tables for Inspection by Attributes, now called ANSI/ASQ Z1.4-2003: Sampling Procedures and Tables for Inspection by Attributes. The emphasis was the acceptances of a lot of output with a small risk of rejection of good items on the part of the producer and a larger risk of accepting bad items on the part of the customer. Relatively few process control systems existed.

The Japanese, on the other hand, specialized in process control which Deming taught them in 1950. As a result, they were capturing markets with better products at lower cost. Once American Management recognized this, they too wanted process control. The NBC White Paper of 1980 gave them this information and process control became a standard method.

Top Management’s Role
Deming, Juran, and others kept emphasizing the need for top management’s active involvement in achieving quality. The key was that top management needed to make their policies support quality not hinder it. The concept of single source suppliers saved many companies a fortune as well as creating better, more uniform output.

The problem was that the rapid growth of the quality profession led to a number of untrained or partially trained individuals who needed a quick fix. The European Union supported a method called ISO 9000. While this method permitted process control, it did not emphasize it, in fact it was an option. The emphasis of this process was and is on inspection, now renamed auditing.

Entropy: Sliding Back
Apparently, we moved from emphasis inspection before 1980 to process control until the latter part of 1990’s then back to the emphasis on inspection. Can this be a reason for what I see as the decline in the number of quality professionals, the change in management attitudes, and the return to the status quo of pre 1980? Is there the equivalent of Gresham’s Law in quality: old methods replace the modern? Does the death of Deming and Crosby followed by the retirement of Juran leave us with no one to whom top management listens? Can we recapture the spirit of quality as a sound business policy? Your editor invites your comments.

Reference List
Crawford-Mason, C., Frank, R., Lockhart, R., & Dobyns, L. (1980). If Japan can. . .why can’t we? Dobyns, Lloyd. New York, NBC. Ref Type: Video Recording

Kilian, C. S. (1992). The world of W. Edwards Deming. (2nd. ed.) Knoxville, TN: SPC Press.

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