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The Culture of Quality: Nurture It, Do Not Stomp It Out

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Since the late 13th century, there has been a strong push for quality to assert itself into the production market in a professional aspect, but it has not always been easy for quality to flourish. The Medieval Guilds of Europe were one of the founding organizations contributing to the quality and craftsmanship of the product through intense and strict training. The modern German Guild system still follows many of the same practices, and the overall adherence to quality helps Germany produce some of the most reliable products in the world. Until the 19th Century, Manufacturing tended to follow this Craftsmanship Model. Because most craftsmen sold their goods and/or services locally, each had a very large stake in meeting the customers' needs for quality. Failing to meet Customers' needs could lead to loss of customers not easily replaced. Guild Masters Inspected products and services carefully for quality to avoid loss of satisfaction.


The Factory System Started in the mid-1750s in Great Britain and evolved into the Industrial Revolution by the early 1800s. The factory system began to divide craftsman's trades into specific tasks, forcing craftsmen to become factory workers and shop owners to become production supervisors. This change heralded an initial decline in employees’ sense of empowerment and autonomy in the workplace. Quality in the factory system was ensured through the skill of laborers supplemented by audits and/or inspections. Defective products were either reworked or scrapped.

Late in the 19th century, the United States deviated further from European tradition and adopted a new management method developed by Frederick W. Taylor, whose goal was to increase productivity while avoiding increasing the number of skilled craftsmen. This was achieved through assigning factory planning to specialized engineers and by using craftsmen and supervisors as inspectors and managers who executed the plans of the engineers. Taylor’s approach led to significant rises in productivity, but the new emphasis on productivity had a negative effect on quality. In order to remedy the quality decline, inspection departments were created to keep defective products from reaching customers.

-"You cannot inspect quality into a product" - Harold F. Dodge


In order to prevent unsafe military equipment from being produced by the civilian manufacturers during the war, and to prevent every piece of equipment from being inspected, the armed forces helped suppliers improve quality by sponsoring training courses in Walter Shewhart’s statistical quality control techniques and Mil-Std-105 was released. In my opinion, this was the first move back toward quality being more dominant over production (though it would be a long journey).


A large majority of programs for statistical quality control were terminated once the war and government contracts came to an end. Rather than adopting the clear advantages of the new methods, the culture of the factories had not changed, and once the perceived mandate was no more, the programs were tossed out like trash. Japan was in dire need of a way to improve its manufacturing process, and W. Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran provided input to Japanese manufacturers, and Japan launched itself down the total quality path. Only after many years did American manufacturers come to understand that they were behind on the quality curve. American manufacturers are now actively attempting to achieve a goal of high quality, but Culture keeps rearing its head. many managers want to try something "new" hoping it will be a magic bullet to solve every problem from employee engagement to customer satisfaction.


The Culture of an organization arises from the interactions of its employees, leadership, and stakeholders. First and foremost: if the stakeholders do not believe in quality, or that the customers will pay for quality, then the fight is over (from a quality standpoint). Without the motivation to provide the highest quality product to the customer then what will be produced is the "it's good enough" level of quality that so many of us have rolled our eyes at as we open the package of an item we purchased at a "steal" only to find it was we who had our pocket picked. Second: when Top Management will not talk to the front line workers as if they have input worthy of listening to, then most of the real value-added input will be lost, and heard only through a telephone effect. Go-and-See should be actively practiced, and not just in a casual Gemba walk but with active conversation and close observation. Third: Change management has to be more than a title. MOC is a method of top-down communication that also allows all levels to provide two-way feedback. Finally, Be sure problems and solutions are addressed at a front line level. This will help those at the front line become more invested in the quality of their process, and more likely to feel real ownership of the process. Much like the old style Guild members, you need a Master Craftsman to lead your process improvement (Black Belt or PMP, anyone who has the training to handle a cross-functional team). Your team members are your Journey-persons, working with pride and craftsmanship on the process. Never abandon the process for quarterly dollars.


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