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Jeff Dewar

Quality Insider

Darwin Is Watching

How quality management systems conform to the laws of evolution

Published: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 11:28

One could argue that quality programs today share a common skeleton, with prototypes stretching back to the medieval guilds of 13th century Europe. The ISO 9001 quality management system (QMS), the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, the Deming Prize, Six Sigma, the European EFQM, the FDA’s CDRH quality program, and others, including your own industry’s quality criteria, all have much in common, despite how the different camps may disagree (and bicker) with each other.

We know these awards, standards, and programs are different—with different purposes, structure, focus, processes, and administration—but don’t they all share a common skeleton, albeit with “bones” of varying shapes? Anyone with even a modest knowledge of quality knows that continuous improvement, prevention vs. inspection, employee involvement, customer focus, leadership participation by management, supplier participation, standardization, and documentation of procedures are all part of a quality management system.

Opinions—usually strong ones—vary about which program or standard is better, how one is different than another, and how they relate to one another. For example, the Baldrige Criteria explains how it’s very different than ISO 9001, but then goes on to say that ISO 9001:2015, coming later this year, complements the Baldrige Award even more. In a very real sense, a Darwinian sense, quality programs have been evolving, branching off from common ancestors, powered by evolution through random variation and natural selection, for a long time. (You’ll note that I have not used the term “survival of the fittest,” because it wasn’t coined by Darwin, and wasn’t used in his original editions of On the Origin of Species. Modern biologists generally don’t use this phrase as it doesn’t accurately describe the mechanism of evolution, and this is equally true for the evolution of quality management systems.)

Darwin explains it best

Your human skeleton is the same as those found in all the 5,500 mammal species on the planet, although the bones are pulled, compressed, squeezed, thinned, squashed, and fattened in many ways for the different species. This has been going on without a break since the days of our single common mammalian ancestor 65 million years ago.

In his brilliant book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Free Press, 2009), Oxford professor Richard Dawkins describes how the mammalian skeleton is an amazingly consistent, interlocking assembly of bone, creating a beautiful support structure upon which to anchor a body. The illustration below depicts a bat skeleton, and you can instantly see that its wings are comprised of what, on you, would be your hand and finger bones (phalanges and metacarpals). Like Dawkins, I admit to wincing when I look at those delicate wing bones and imagine them wrapped in a membrane of my skin and trying to lift my 196 pounds into the air.

Bat skeleton

The sameness between our hand and a bat’s wing is called “homology”; the two structures are “homologous.”

Our middle fingernail or middle toenail is tantamount to a horse’s hoof. Speaking homologously, a horse literally gallops on its middle fingers and toes! In the horse, the homologues of our index and ring fingers survive as tiny splint bones fused to the large cannon bone, hidden under the skin.

To make the point even more uncomfortably, as shown in the illustration below, occasionally horses are born with a physical anomaly of three “toes,” the middle one serving as the normal foot and the ones on the side as miniature hooves, instead of remaining as the hidden splint bones.

Polydactylic horse

Examples of homology abound showing that the mammalian skeleton has produced almost limitless alterations across enormous spans of time. But although the bones might change shape, the skeleton retains its structural and interlocking consistency.

Quality homologues

Likewise, the natural beauty of quality programs is their virtually limitless homologues. For example, I recall my excitement about how lean concepts could be readily incorporated into a QMS. In a nod to Darwin, I could feel the “bones” of the QMS skeleton stretching to include lean practices where none existed before:

Speaking homologously, maybe you could use your QMS to focus on employee involvement through the extensive use of the lost art of quality circles, making rank-and-file participation in quality improvement a daily reality.

In a QMS maybe those “bones” related to your continuous improvement processes could encourage experimentation, even (heaven forbid) failure. After all, not everything you try will work perfectly on the first attempt. But the point is that you tried, you learned, and you acted on what you learned.

As an example very close to home, Quality Digest’s first attempt at live broadcasting over the Internet in 2009 was a wonderful “failure,” but today we can hold our own against any business media company when it comes to live web broadcasting, whether from our studios in California or from a tradeshow in Timbuktu—even without a broadband connection.

Given the worldwide wealth of quality programs, it’s hard to imagine a limitation on how a QMS might support and accommodate an organization’s particular emphasis—and cause its skeleton to evolve.

Create a homologue that expresses your quality vision

You don’t have to look far to find companies that have established their own quality homologues. In each case, much like evolution itself, the companies did not know they were evolving their QMS at the time. It just “happened” over the course of time. It was simply the result of putting a focus and emphasis on particular aspects of their QMS. Here are five examples.

After a four-year journey, in 1989 Florida Power and Light (FPL) won the Deming Prize, the first non-Japanese company to do so. The company’s clear desire to improve and its passionate driving force amply demonstrated that a U.S. company could compete toe-to-toe with the supposedly superior Japanese industry and its love of quality.

Panasonic Avionics Corp. in Bothell, Washington, chose the ISO 9001 quality path, focusing on quality operational procedures (QOPs) and work instructions (WIs), which helped clarify some loose, redundant, and undefined processes. Although the process was more of an exercise in achieving ISO 9001 certification due to parent company and customer pressures, Panasonic Avionics did get everyone thinking seriously about process documentation.

Wayne H. Colony Co., in Tallahassee, Florida, had a very clear and narrow focus on quality: “Fitness for use,” which was Joseph Juran’s definition of quality. Everything in its program focused on that outcome, from defining requirements to measuring customer satisfaction.

Bonita, the South African dairy, had a vibrant total quality program characterized by enthusiastic and well-trained facilitators who considered themselves “change agents” focusing on project management goals. Change became a near religion, powered by projects.

Honda of America, with its legendary quality processes, strongly emphasized supplier integration, almost to the point that “assimilation,” and all that it implied, became a concept in name only.

More than 100 organizations have won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award since its inception in 1988, and I’ll argue that each of those recipients had their own twist on the overall quality evolution that shaped their programs’ “skeletons.”

Be confident in our common skeleton

All these examples, and tens of thousands of others like them, include many or most of the elements you would expect to see in a unique, comprehensive quality program. What is different is the emphasis that’s put on any one aspect of quality management. That alone is enough to produce rapid evolutionary pressures to pull and tug and compress any program’s skeleton.

Have confidence in being flexible in your application of quality management, and don’t be timid about exploring grand ideas that may morph the QMS and in the process tackle tricky issues your company holds dear. The unbridled beauty of our industry is that “quality” is one of those wonderful words that can apply in broad ways, noble ways—quality of product, quality of service, and especially quality of life.


About The Author

Jeff Dewar’s picture

Jeff Dewar

Jeff Dewar is CEO of Millennium 360 Inc., Quality Digest’s parent company. During his career he has presented quality-related topics to thousands of people on six continents, all but Antarctica.


Only one QMS concern

Mr. Dewar, thanks for the perspective. 

It seems that only one of the quality "programs" appearing in this article actually fits the subtitle: "How quality management systems conform to the laws of evolution." ISO 9001 appears to be the only one of them that actually applies to quality management systems. The ISO 9000 family urges systemic application of PDCA, which is basically scientific method being applied systematically to everyday operations. Per ISO 9001, an established quality management system is supposed to demonstrate systemic application of PDCA (aka, the process approach). Moreover, ISO 9001 requires a comprehensive system for satisfying customers, to which PDCA is applied systemically to improve (or evolve).

ISO 9001 registration (if effectively administered) attests that a system is in place to assure quality product is delivered on time to customers. None of the rest of them does that. Once ISO 9001 is effectively implemented, we can rely on it to effectively distinguish between those who have systems in place to satisfy their customers from those who do not.

Six sigma, on the other hand, does not require, nor does operate upon, a management system for satisfying customers. At best, it operates within the system established to satisfy customers (a quality management system). Six sigma aids to assist improvement of this system (consistent with systemic application of PDCA), but it does not itself require a system considering common risks to quality performance (e.g., the risk of using uncontrolled documents in processing, the risk of employing incompetent personnel to perform work affecting quality, the risk of making promises that exceed abilities, the risk of not properly handling product, etc.). (While some may regard 6S as a “system,” it’s not a quality management system in the sense ISO uses the term.)

Excellence models are not focused primarily upon an organization's ability to consistently fulfill its obligations to customers; excellence models may include this facet of organizational endeavor, but they have a broader focus than just that system of processes outputting product to satisfy customers.

ISO 9001 registration (if effectively administered) attests that a system is in place to assure quality product is delivered on time to customers. Those using ISO 9001 as a supplier selection device may not be concerned in the least if their supplier is an excellent organization by anyone's criteria; these folks want their product to conform to their requirements and they want it to be delivered on time.

None of the rest of them do that. Once ISO 9001 is effectively implemented, we can rely on it to effectively distinguish between those who have systems in place to satisfy their customers from those who do not. Getting a prize or an award attesting to outstanding quality management is great. ISO 9001 doesn't focus on being great or excellent, its focus is on the effectiveness of the system outputting product to satisfy customers. It’s about keeping promises to customers.

promoting evolution?

How does lumping these concerns together in a common "skeleton" promote the evolution of any of them, or the evolution of quality management?