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by Laura Smith


Don Dewar is the founder and president of QCI International, Quality Digest's parent company. He founded the organization in 1978, and it operated primarily as a consultancy and training provider specializing in quality circles. The organization started publishing Quality Digest in 1981, when the magazine was called Quality Circle Digest.

Dewar has a long and impressive career in the quality industry. Three of his books on quality management have sold more than one million copies each; in recent years, he's become a sought-after speaker, traveling around the world addressing audiences about quality and its implications for society. Quality Digest's 25th anniversary is the perfect opportunity to take a retrospective of Dewar's career and quality philosophy. Here, he discusses both.


Quality Digest : Tell us about your professional background. Where did you go to college, and what was your first job after you graduated? What were your responsibilities there?

Don Dewar: I emigrated to the United States from Saskatchewan, Canada. I was promptly drafted into the U.S. army, where they trained me to be a radar technician. Out of the army, I took a clerical position with the Union Pacific Railroad. I looked around for ways to advance, and decided that a university degree was the best way to do it. However, I was already in my mid-twenties and therefore older than most of my classmates. That gave me the incentive to go full-steam ahead on my studies. I completed my bachelor's degree in three years while holding down a full-time job and helping raise an expanding family. Fresh out of college I was hired as an industrial engineer by the Boeing Airplane Co. in Seattle.


QD: How did you get involved with quality?

DD: I had just finished a one-year term as president of the Lockheed Martin Management Association. Wayne Rieker, manufacturing manager for the missile systems division, was intrigued by something called "quality control circles" that was attracting a lot of attention in Japan. He wondered if it might be equally applicable in the United States. My assignment was to find a candidate at Lockheed Martin to investigate the concept and, if it had merit, to get things rolling. Surprising to me, no one felt comfortable risking his or her career on this foreign import. Many times I heard comments such as "This team stuff may work in Japan, but it will never last here in the United States." However, I was totally convinced that it would work in the West and finally told Mr. Rieker that I had the perfect person for the job--me! He promptly accepted my recommendation, and that was the beginning of my career in the world of quality. Rieker, four others and I flew to Japan, where we received red-carpet treatment at the hands of the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE). Some of our group stayed in Japan for a week and a half. I was there for most of the month of November. The great Kaoru Ishikawa was constantly offering his services to make sure we learned how to do it right.


QD: When did you get the idea to start Quality Digest ?

DD: My experience with the Lockheed Martin Management Association convinced me that a magazine was a good way to maintain top-notch communication with all of its members. In 1977 I co-founded a new group called the Association for Quality and Participation. It was totally separate from Lockheed Martin. One of the first things I did was to initiate a quarterly magazine to help out with the communication challenge. Thus, early on, I saw the need for my organization, QCI International, to have its own magazine.


QD: How did you envision the magazine?

DD: The early issues each had 20 articles. That may seem like a lot, and it was, but each article was short and to the point. Also, we decided that we would not take advertising. That changed, but not for several years. The central focus of the articles was anything to do with quality circles. However, we soon realized that quality circles could get us into any aspect of quality, so in 1987 we decided that a slight change in the title of the magazine was in order. The name of the magazine changed from Quality Circle Digest to Quality Digest. In 1990, another big change occurred when the magazine started taking advertising.


QD: What was it like, getting the first issue to press?

DD: Amazingly, there were no major disasters in getting the first magazine out. Tension? Yes. Close calls? Yes. Actually, we were pretty proud of ourselves. On the other hand, we planned the first issue over a period of months. The second and subsequent issues had to make it out in only 30 days--that's where we were really tested!


QD: How have QCI International and Quality Digest changed over the years?

DD: In the early days of Quality Circle Digest, its effect on the bottom line was miniscule compared the many training programs, training videos and training manuals that we offered. Today, the publication sector of our business has grown to include not only the magazine but several e-newsletters. The magazine and newsletters now dominate what is happening in the company and in the world of quality.


QD: You have traveled all over the world speaking about quality. Is there a place or audience that stands out to you?

DD: That's easy. My favorite audience is located in the city of Lucknow, India, at the annual World Council for Total Quality and Excellence in Education. The organization behind this event is the brainchild of Jagdish Gandhi, founder and manager of the leading school in that part of the world. Gandhi traveled to Japan in the early 1990s and was impressed by his introduction to the quality world that he received there. As a result of his commitment and enthusiasm, this conference takes place somewhere in the world each year. Every second year the event is held in Lucknow. Attendees include school principals, teachers and students. The focus is quality and how to ingrain it into our educational institutions. At the most recent conference in Lucknow, 20 nations participated. Eighty-nine schools from India and 99 from other nations took part in various competitions. Fortunately for me, the only language at these conferences is English!


QD: Why do you think that manufacturing and service sectors in emerging markets have been so successful in picking up quality techniques? What does this tell us about the state of quality in the United States?

DD: In my travels around the world, people have told me that they have quality awards in their countries. They explain with pride that the criteria for their quality award is modeled after the Baldrige Award in the United States. Furthermore, the people in these other countries who are leaders in quality often are members of the American Society for Quality. This, they believe, gives them instant credibility on quality matters. This concern and respect for what is happening, quality-wise, influences what they feel they must do to sell their products and services to us and other comparable markets around the world.


QD: What's next for quality? Has Six Sigma lost some of its luster?

DD: That's hard to predict, but rest assured it will continue to evolve through new (and not-so-new) iterations. Has Six Sigma lost some of its luster? Perhaps for some. On the other hand, there are companies that may come to recognize that their product and service challenges are complex enough that the Six Sigma approach may be just what the doctor ordered.


QD: What do you feel is the role of a trade publication in the quality industry?

DD: In general, a trade publication, whether it be a magazine or a newsletter, serves somewhat the same purpose as books. However, I see a number of advantages for trade publications over books. These include: low cost--many are even free due to advertising support, which is not an option for books; timeliness--trade publications are often published monthly, so there is an immediacy with magazines that you can't duplicate in a book; and a global viewpoint--because of cost considerations, books are less likely to find a home in underdeveloped parts of the world. For example, while Quality Digest has subscribers in more than 50 nations, that still leaves approximately 150 nations with no subscribers. But, and this is important, any person with a computer can read the monthly Internet version of Quality Digest at no cost at all. With a bold enough extrapolation, we might boast that QD has readers in every nation around the globe.


QD: You have always focused on the importance of teams to ensure quality and operate an organization efficiently. Has this concept changed in the larger business world over the years?

DD: The use of teams in business improvement really started in 1980. Prior to 1980 it was almost guaranteed that when a company would bring me in to pitch reasons for initiating quality circles, I would hear the often-repeated refrain, "Teams may work for the Japanese but never here in America." Today, team activity is widespread--a far cry from the pre-1980 days. Also, it varies to include quality circles, TQM teams, lean teams, Six Sigma teams and several other types. Team activity, I am certain, will continue to grow, especially when it is more skillfully sold. I'm talking about a key factor for generating rock-solid support for teams at all levels. That factor is measurement. I am constantly amazed at how poorly team results are measured. At one extreme, there are facilitators who don't know how to properly measure, so they don't even try. Others try to measure but do it so badly that no one believes their claims. Often, the solution is to simply follow the official company criteria for calculating benefits and costs. To ensure an acceptable and believable cost-benefit analysis, involve finance personnel. Even the cynics are likely to believe numbers that have been blessed by the finance department.


QD: Are we in the United States using lean concepts as they were envisioned and used in Japan, or have we developed our own model of the methodology? Is this good or bad?

DD: For the most part, U.S. companies are adhering to the Japanese view of lean. At the same time, over many decades, we have contributed to the ever-increasing collection of lean ideas. The introduction of team activity demonstrated what people could accomplish when they tackled problems in the workplace. Early team activity by quality circles with their seven problem-solving tools were impressive. During the 1980s in some Japanese factories, seven new tools were added to the original seven. During a visit to Japan I asked Ishikawa if results for teams using all 14 of the tools had surged ahead of those for teams who used only the seven original ones. He replied that teams using only the seven basic tools could solve 95 percent of the problems compared to the teams using all 14 tools. Members of our group were surprised. We had expected a much greater advantage for the users of the 14 tools. Then, Ishikawa explained that any advantage, even 5 percent, should be embraced because that can make the difference between being in first place and being an also-ran.


About the author
Laura Smith is Quality Digest's assistant editor.