Quality Through The Ages

IRT Essentials

Imagine it’s 325 B.C.E and you’re at Aristotle’s school, the Lyceum, in Athens. A builder has come to ask Aristotle’s advice. He explains that his workers have not done well with recent jobs and the customers are finding other builders. He has corrected the issues he’s found in the work but this is costing him his profits for the job when work must be redone. He asks, “can you help me?”

Aristotle ponders for a moment, then says, “Quality is not an act, it is a habit.” And so we have history’s first formal statement about quality: Quality is not a special, ‘extra’ activity, but a way of intrinsically performing one’s work.  

Since Aristotle’s time, history has seen many trends come and go in the furtherance of quality workmanship. In the Middle Ages, the formation of the guild system enabled apprentices to develop their skills by assisting their master’s work. After seven or more years, an apprentice might be promoted to "journeyman” and allowed to work quasi-independently while still looking to his master for additional training. Finally, the journeyman was promoted to master and could open his own workshop. Only after years of intense experience, it was believed, could a craftsman develop the skills and knowledge needed to produce a high-quality product for medieval consumers.

The guild system persisted into the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of manufacturing. Here we found the genesis of the modern quality movement – how to define the practices necessary to produce high quality products on a major scale. With the advent of mass production, the focus was initially riveted on preventing bad parts from getting through the manufacturing process. Since World War II, the question has been posed even more broadly: i.e., how to solve the problem of low quality output in all forms of endeavor?

Three men have been players of note in the modern quality movement -- W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran, and Phillip Crosby. Each of these thinkers have highlighted the relationship between action and quality in modern industrial practice. Their thinking enriches ours as we consider – and reconsider – our own internal approaches to quality. Quality, we are reminded, may be hard to define but it is not an abstract thing. Rather it is the concrete result of an approach to our work which, by the very structure of the processes selected, builds excellence in as an intrinsic part of the achievement. Put in other terms, quality is an operational concept.

From W. Edwards Deming (1900 – 1993):

“Build quality in. By what method?”

“A goal without a method is nonsense.”

“I am not reporting things about people. I am reporting things about practices.”

“Improve quality and you automatically improve productivity.”

From Joseph Juran (1904 – 2008):

“Quality planning consists of developing the products and processes required to meet the customers’ needs.”

“All improvement happens project by project and in no other way.”

“Without a standard there is no logical basis for making a decision or taking action.”

From Phillip Crosby (1926 – 2001):

“Quality is conformance to requirements – nothing more, nothing less.”

“Improving quality requires a culture change, not just a new diet.”

Quality management is a systematic way of guaranteeing that organized activities happen the way they are planned.”

The common thread from Aristotle to Crosby is that quality is a built-in, cultural attribute of individuals and companies – or it isn’t.

And the choice is up to us.

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