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Jeff Dewar

Quality Insider

Five Moments in Quality That Changed My Life

They would have changed your life, too

Published: Monday, January 12, 2015 - 14:32

Evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould is best known for his history of punctuated equilibrium, a revision to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Punctuated equilibrium holds that new species evolve suddenly over brief periods of time, followed by longer periods during which there is no genetic change.

New ideas, like new species, also seem to adhere to Gould’s theory. Every now and then, we have these “moments” that profoundly change our accepted beliefs and open our minds to entirely new perspectives. These are five of mine.

1. Chicago, 1988

Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, now 70 years old, was giving a speech to a group of managers who thought Fedex’s whole quality movement was utterly ridiculous. “Our company is all about productivity! Why all this talk about quality?”

Up on the whiteboard Smith wrote the symbolic equation between quality and productivity:

Q = P

Then he explained that quality improvement leads to productivity improvement, when productivity is defined as:

With less rework, waste, and inspection in the system, input is reduced, and fourth-grade arithmetic tells you that productivity is increased, even if output stays constant.

Some of the holdouts in the room, opposed to the whole notion of quality, challenged, “OK, then which one do you really want—quality or productivity?” Which implied, of course, that quality and productivity were mutually exclusive.

Smith’s reply was elegant in its simplicity: “Both. Why? Because I don’t think our board of directors would like it very much if quality improved dramatically, but we had to declare bankruptcy because our costs went through the roof trying to raise productivity. Nor do I think they would like it if we slashed our costs dramatically through increased productivity, but lost all our customers due to bad quality.”

Those two sentences hit me like a boulder. I remember sitting there thinking, as Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard McCoy famously said, “Of course. Of course. A child could see it. A child could see it.”

If you’re still not convinced, then consider this: The Deming Prize is arguably the most prestigious management award in the world. It was established in Japan in 1951 to honor the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming and the quality teachings he brought to the crushed industry of post-WW II Japan. For its first four decades the Deming Prize was an exclusively Japanese award, but is now sought by companies throughout the world. However, Deming is known in Japan as the father of modern productivity.

My quality moment? Tie quality to productivity, and vice versa, with both logic and symbolism.

2. Cincinnati, 1985

Ken Blanchard, now 75, had recently published The One-Minute Manager (William Morrow, reprint 2003), one of the best-selling business books of all time. He was keynoting at a conference of the Association for Quality and Participation (AQP).

As a professor at Cornell, Blanchard taught courses in leadership that shocked new students. When they received the final exam on the first day, he told the snickering class, “...and not only am I giving you the exact test I’ll pass out on the final day of class, but I’m going to spend the next four months telling you the answers.” Within the next few hours the reality of the test began to sink in: It was not going to be a matter of memorizing answers; rather, it would break any student who was considering skating through the semester.

During the keynote Blanchard yelled out, “Life is about getting As! Not some freaking bell curve!” Any student who wanted an A could attain one—if he or she worked for it. Blanchard went on to describe how he “gave them the answers by teaching them how to think.” Now, is that not at the core of what a teacher truly does?

My quality moment? It took years to connect quality to this moment, until it was pointed out to me (I’m embarrassed to write this) that employees actually want to produce perfect quality, but like the final exam in Blanchard’s class, they need to fully understand what is expected of them, and how to achieve the necessary results.

3. At home in Redding, California, 1996

AT&T had spent literally millions training every single customer service agent to end each conversation with “...and thank you for using AT&T” as the closing sentence. This was enforced as well as encouraged by incentives, measurement, and so forth. The consistency of the desired performance was extremely high.

I had the chance to put that training to the test when I needed help sorting out my international calling charges, a somewhat complicated matter. The agent was friendly, polite, and helpful. I was impressed with the obviously excellent training of the woman who was helping me. She answered all my questions and clearly knew her stuff. At one point I asked, “You know your job so well, do you mind if I ask how long you’ve worked there?” When she told me just two months, I was astonished. Now that’s what I call truly excellent training by an employer.

At the end of our discussion she said, “Is there anything else I can help with?” What follows is our conversation, faithfully reported:

Me: “Nope, but thank you very much.”

Agent: “No, sir, thank you for using AT&T!”

Me (unable to resist the temptation): “No, really, thank you for such excellent customer service.”

Agent: “Uh, uh, no, no, sir, thank you very much for using AT&T!”

And then click. She got the last word in. She achieved the performance objective by closing out that conversation with the words so clearly defined in the employee work requirement.

I brought this behavior up with one of my colleagues, Dr. Diana Berg, who pointed out that the agent was clearly demonstrating the difference between education and training. She went on to explain that education is in large part teaching people how to think, whereas training is more about teaching people how to behave. She used the example that, generally speaking, universities educate while vocational schools train. Both are equally important, but the focus is notably different.

Berg pointed out that the agent was well trained during her classes, but the classes lacked an educational component. I must have had a look on my face that communicated I just didn’t understand, so she asked me the question that clarified the point to its utmost: “Jeff, think of it this way: Would you rather go home tonight and have your junior-high school daughter ask you to sign a permission slip to attend a sex education class, or to attend a sex training class?”

Education is teaching people how to think. Training is teaching them what to do. An employer who knows how to combine and balance the two will receive the best employee performance.

My quality moment? I had heard, literally hundreds of times, that the problem with creating and sustaining movement for quality initiatives is that people throughout the organization didn’t look at it in the right way. They didn’t “get it.” Sure, they had been trained, but they didn’t didn't see the larger picture or greater context. Why? Because they had not been educated.

4. South Africa, 1991

South Africa’s contrast in wealth: a shantytown in the shadows of an illuminated stadium.

Eskom, the South African electricity utility and by far the largest electricity provider in Africa, restructured its entire vision, mission, and values during the dying days of Apartheid. I was a consultant for them and witnessed first-hand the monumental changes taking place in a country with 45 million citizens, only six million of whom had the right skin color to vote. Most of the economy of post-World War II South Africa was constructed for the benefit of the white population, and of course the industries they commanded. Simply put, black neighborhoods were not a priority when building the electrical infrastructure until the late 1980s, when the winds of change were blowing at gale force.

Eskom, with inspired leadership, began a remarkable refocusing of priorities toward the entire population. The most powerful and tangible message the company sent was in its new vision statement, with vision being defined as “a dream for the future,” and consisting of three simple words: Electricity for all.

What was so remarkable about this was how effectively it was integrated into Eskom’s budding quality program. In every instance possible, from little cards to posters, Eskom tied its quality policy to the vision, mission, and values, but particularly the vision. The result? A year later I was out on the floor talking to rank-and-file workers and asked them, “Why improve quality?” Their unanimous answer, in dozens of interviews, was, “We are improving quality to see that our vision comes true: Electricity for all.”

My quality moment? Make quality a means to an end in motivating a workforce, a way to see the vision become reality.

5. Seattle, 2001

Entrance to one of Nordstrom's 117 stores

I’d heard the Nordstrom story about its legendary customer service far too many times. Tom Peters, Ron Kaufman, Ron Zemke, Carl Seward, Robert Specter, and countless others have written about it, including everything from employees who can refund tires (Nordstrom doesn’t sell tires), make exchanges that other mainstream retailers would deem insane, and treat customers as though they are part of a salesperson’s personal portfolio. But when comedians start doing parodies on a company, you know something quite out of the ordinary is going on. Seattle’s skit comedy series Almost Live!, which ran on local TV from 1984 to 1999, portrayed Nordstrom accommodating customers to a ridiculous extreme:

So I decided to investigate what was fact and fiction. I called the retailer's HR department and asked for an interview, which they generously granted. I told them I was part of the media, and their response was, “Yeah, so? What do you want to know?” How refreshing!

“How much authority do you give your employees when interacting with customers?” I asked. “I mean real authority, not just the fake platitudes you see everywhere.”

One of the HR managers got up and left the room, which to an interviewer communicates that the person is done with the interview. She returned a moment later, however, with a postcard-sized notice. It was Nordstrom’s employee handbook. She passed it to me, waited a dramatic 10 seconds, and asked, “Any questions?”

Front side

Back side

Yes, this is Nordstrom's employee handbook. Yes, it’s handed out to all new employees. Yes, it’s referred to endlessly by top executives at company conferences. No, it’s not a PR ploy. This is perhaps the most visible and documented demonstration of a company’s commitment to employee empowerment, something that is explicitly called out in the draft version of ISO 9001:2015.

Nordstrom makes an extremely powerful point through brevity, simplicity, and symbolism. Most important, the company backs it up with training, and then more training. However, there's an even more subtle, almost hidden tactic here, something Nordstrom rarely discusses publicly. When I later asked who trains their amazing salespeople, I was told, “Their parents.” Of course I was expecting an organizationally based answer, like HR, video self-study, or their manager at weekly meetings.

My quality moment? It was actually two moments: Real empowerment is backed up by policy and its symbols, but choosing the right people with the right attitudes, supported by training, to respect and use that policy wisely, is equally important.

Closing thought

Ayn Rand famously wrote that we are the product of three things: Our genetics, our environment, and our free will. It’s the latter two that are shaped by our own moments in quality.


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.


I used this article for one

I used this article for one my research assignments for a college course and it actually got me thinking. Your article definitely helped put my professor's teachings into perspective. Thanks!

Great article - one question

Great article, good experiences worth sharing.  In it, you state that "employees actually want to produce perfect quality".

I have believed this for years but have been disappointed time after time.  It seems that some employees just want to get through the day and go home.  Correcting an obvious problem creates extra work for them and they prefer to avoid the hassle.  So they ignore and hide the problem so the next guy can deal with it.  In my experience, the majority of employees respond well to expectations, asking for help, and pointing out problems (andon-type approach).  However, some of them seem to just want to get through the day with as little effort as possible.

Someone please convince me I'm wrong or help me reach those that don't "actually want to produce perfect quality".

Thank you.

Hi Bill, One of my mentors,

Hi Bill, One of my mentors, and a great guy to work for, once said, "I've never fired anyone. I simply free them up for future career opportunities." I think the hard reality is that some people aren't cut out for the team you're trying to build. Nevertheless, some "rehab" can be effective in producing behavioral change, particularly when those individuals are accountable to their peers (rather than just the boss), and giving the team the responsibility for achieving the results. Responsibility to the immediate team has countless benefits in creating a new perspective in how one works with others. Johnsonville Sausage did some amazing things in this regard starting back in the 1980s, as one example. Jeff

Great Article

I am impressed with the articles Quality Digest publishes each week.  This one by Jeff Dewar is one of the best.  Thanks for being a quality magazine on quality.

Thanks Bob. It was quite

Thanks Bob. It was quite enjoyable to think back over the years about which experiences truly made a difference. Jeff