Happy 40th, QD!

A standard, a framework, and a guess at the future of quality

Mike Richman

January 13, 2022

It’s hard to fathom that Quality Digest, a little Northern California media company respected by all and beloved by many, turned 40 in November 2021. For a human being, 40 may be the new 30, but it’s still just creeping up on middle age. For a small business, on the other hand, 40 years is downright old. Few even make it to 40 months, and many don’t last 40 weeks. Four decades turning out thoughtful, industry-defining content on platforms from print to online to video to mobile to social is quite an achievement.

I joined QD as managing editor in spring 2004. At the time, I was so green that I think the entire staff referred to me as “Kermit” behind my back. In any event, with the patient guidance of Don Dewar, Jeff Dewar, Scott Paton, Dirk Dusharme, April Johnson, Laurel Thoennes, and several other long-term team members, I slowly built my knowledge base and began to decipher the sometimes arcane complexities of this thing called quality.

As a history buff with a penchant for remembering and contextualizing the events occurring around certain dates, from the time I began learning about this industry I was struck by the key quality convergence of 1987—the year when both ISO 9001 and the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Improvement Act came into being. In my opinion, the various versions of ISO 9001 and the many dozens of Baldrige Award-winning organizations over the past 35 years have yielded tremendous positives for our industry, with beneficial consequences that are still unfolding for those who see quality as less of a job and more of a mission.

ISO 9001:1987 was followed by updates or, in some cases, complete revisions of the standard in 1994, 2000, 2008, and 2015. With each step along the way, ISO 9001 helped define and then redefine concepts like continuous improvement, the quality management system, root cause analysis, corrective and preventive action, risk-based thinking, context of the organization, and many more. As globalization has taken hold within not only manufacturing but service and transactional sectors, we’ve seen ISO 9001 registrations migrate from a strong concentration in North America and Europe to now include a preponderance of organizations in Asia. In fact, China is home to the most ISO 9001-registered organizations on the planet; this has been the case for nearly two decades now.

The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (which is actually only one part of a framework that includes self-assessments, examiner feedback, and specialized initiatives) offers a rigorous examination of the best organizations in the United States. As with ISO 9001, there have been some notable changes along the way. For example, during the first several years, the winners were almost exclusively drawn from the manufacturing sector. Somewhere around 2000 the balance started to shift away from industry and toward organizations in the service and transaction sectors, as well as many in healthcare and even municipalities. Today, almost no manufacturers win Baldrige Awards. This shows that quality has a universality and utility that transcends “established” sectors and well-worn procedures. The Baldrige, like the quality space in general, is exquisitely adaptable.

Both ISO 9001 and the Baldrige speak clearly to the power of getting everyone on the same page and speaking the same language of quality. The first is a standard, and the second is a framework (or perhaps a methodology), but both work by making people realize that nothing good happens unless they buy in, work together, and remain curious and passionate about performance excellence. Quality continues and accelerates when the individuals in the organization realize their ability to effect lasting, positive change. On the other hand, quality withers and dies when people feel unheard and powerless to drive improvement. The choice, as always, begins with management.

Because the new year has dawned and it’s a time for looking ahead, please permit me to close with some thoughts and guesses about where quality is headed, in no particular order:
• Remote training, auditing, and information-gathering will continue to grow, but more slowly during the next 12 to 24 months. People are hungry for face-to-face interaction and will surge back to take advantage of in-person opportunities in the immediate aftermath of Covid (which is coming, right?). After a relatively brief blip, however, remote interactions will resume ever-faster growth by 2024.
• Machine learning and predictive analytics, which are already blending, will merge completely. The ever-increasing amount of available process data, acquired under every conceivable operating condition, and being fed back to machinery (all in real time), will virtually eliminate failure modes unless they are directly caused by human interaction.
• The International Organization of Standardization (ISO) will bring the high-level structure to an increasing number of standards. Instead of registering to a handful of standards, most organizations, even small ones, will register to many because implementation, integration, and auditing will be cheaper and easier than ever before.
• After a lull in the past decade, the term “quality” in people’s job titles will come roaring back because it best encapsulates and describes the work being done.

What do you predict will happen to our industry in the coming years? I’m curious to see your comments, so please post them below.

I must say that becoming conversant in the language and ideas of quality has been one of the best things that ever happened in my career, and for that I have the 14 years I spent at Quality Digest to thank. Like all of us who have been touched by this unique field, it’s hard to work in quality and not apply it to one’s life, too. Being efficient, employing the DMAIC cycle, and persistently asking, “Why?” have served me well everywhere. I’m sure they’ve done the same for you.

Quality Digest is a unique and special media company offering content made for and by passionate, engaged, and smart people. I’m proud to call them friends and colleagues, and thrilled to still contribute to the conversation after all these years. Like you, I look forward to the forthcoming chapters in this long-running story.

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Mike Richman