I don’t make this observation happily. As I reflect on the current state of quality (or lack thereof) in many aspects of American business, I wonder what happened to all the things that people like Deming, Juran, Crosby and others taught back in the 80’s and 90’s. In many ways, it’s almost like the “Quality Movement” didn’t happen at all.

So, I have to ask “Why?”

The Current Situation

In my research of asking people what their greatest challenge is in software testing, the most frequent response in the past 3 years has been “Lack of management support for quality.” This is followed closely by “Lack of adequate user requirements.”

Both of these challenges are indicators that the quality message has been lost in many organizations.

However, don’t just take my word for it. Look around at the places where you eat, shop and travel, and you will likely observe that good service and good quality are getting more rare.

What mystifies me is why more companies don’t see higher quality as a way to distinguish themselves from their competition and gain more profits. Instead, companies seem content to survive based on the belief that customers will remain loyal because everyone else is just as bad. I’m thinking about the state of the U.S. airline industry at this point, but it also applies to computers, software, cars, you name it. One notable exception in my experience is the hotel industry which seems to be more customer focused as many chains are trying to compete for the business traveler.

The Quality Movement Revisited

For those of you who were too young to remember, in the mid 80’s, various industries (especially the automotive industry) found themselves competing in a global marketplace with companies that were producing better products cheaper. Their “loyal” customers started to obey their desire to buy better cars, electronics or whatever from whoever could make it best and give a good value – no matter which country produced them.

At this point, management in America started listening to a man that we had previously ignored since the 1940’s, but that the Japanese had embraced – Dr. W. Edwards Deming. There were others as well, such as Joseph Juran and Phillip Crosby also making the message of how to improve quality.

The consulting companies saw a great opportunity to market these principles, so they became known as “Total Quality Management”, a term that Dr. Deming never embraced. However, it got the attention of management as the “next big thing” and TQM was all the rage for at least a few years. (You can find references to people using the term TQM as early as 1974, but only sporadically in speeches and papers.)

Many of the concepts of TQM came from how quality control was being performed in Japan and incorporated the teaching of Deming, Juran, Crosby, Ishikawa and others.

What Went Wrong

Dr. Deming wrote “The 14 Points” of quality. If you read Deming’s excellent book, “Out of the Crisis”, or look on the web (http://www.deming.org/theman/teachings02.html), you can find these points.

Two things are obvious to me as I read the 14 Points from today's point of view:

  • We don’t do many of these things.
  • Even when we tried to do these things in the past, we misapplied them. For example, Point 10 is to “Eliminate Exhortations” which says to not to use “slogans, posters and exhortations for the work force, demanding Zero Defects and new levels of productivity, without providing methods.”

I believe the one major thing that was lost in all the hoopla is that the things that Dr. Deming taught were not about quality for the sake of virtue (because of creating excellence), but were all about increasing business profits.

Unfortunately, too many business leaders saw TQM as something like the United Way drive and not as cultural change. Some saw TQM, the associated certifications (ISO 9000, CMM, Six Sigma, etc.) and the awards like the Baldrige Award, as “trophy hunts” for the sake of marketing but not for the long-term business benefits.

The really bad effect is that now whenever quality is mentioned, people tend to say “Been there, done that.” Or, they say, “People still do business with us, so things can’t be all that bad.”

Then, the Internet wave hit and people started working in “web time”. Instead of optimizing processes, people were more focused on getting something to market quickly regardless of flaws. In the flurry of rapid innovation, the final nails were in the coffin of TQM.

Is There Hope for Quality?

Maybe, but only when customers demand it. That’s what happened in the 1980’s in the automobile industry and I think it could happen again in other industries.

However, the solution isn’t quite that simple. It takes a company to step up and offer higher quality products and services. For example, in the airline industry no matter which airline you fly, they are all about the same. One interesting development is the entrance of Virgin America, which is getting very high marks from customers. I’m hopeful.

If I just had one wish for executive management in companies to see and embrace, it is that everything we do can be identified as a process and improved. We improve by measuring the right things and making the right corrections.

Now this takes some tough calls by management at times. For example, it’s easier to just let something of lesser quality go out to customers for the sake of time or cost savings. In fact, people in the company will often push back at delays needed to do it right.

I always point to cases where companies were turned around because of higher quality. These include Harley Davidson, Hyundai, Apple and others.

But for heaven’s sake, if we do make quality a priority again, let’s not turn it into a program or marketing scheme. Let’s make quality improvement a business activity and give it executive leadership. “Support” is a weak word. I may support you in something, but may not be fully committed myself. We need the Lee Iacocca brand of leadership in quality again - the kind of person who won't take pay until the company gets it right.


Let’s not forget the important teachings of people like Dr. Deming, Dr. Juran and others. If you read these people's books for the first time, you will probably think, “Yes, they have it right!” as you turn the pages.
However, the people that really need to read these books (executive managers such as CEOs, CIOs, for example) probably aren’t reading this article.

We are all customers and we can help make our country and economy better (and our lives easier) by making the quality decision to do business with people who are at least making efforts to do things better.

We can also make our message better (when we get the chance to make it) by working harder to tie quality to business value.

So let’s at least keep the memories of what we have learned about quality alive by keeping the conversation going and letting people know that there is a better way to do business!