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   First Word                by Scott Paton

The Beginning of the End

Nothing stays the same forever, nor should it.


December is traditionally a time to look back on what the year has wrought. This December, as we look back on 1998, we will also be looking forward to the last year of not only this decade but also of this century and this millennium. The millennium that began with plagues and crusades comes to a close with plagues and crusades.

Obviously, I don't have room in this space to expound upon the history of Western civilization, but I would like to look back at the last decade.

The 1990s have been a time of transition; what Tom Peters calls the nanosecond '90s. In nearly all areas of our lives -- financial services, manufacturing, health care, computers, politics, quality -- we seem to be moving from one stage to the next. A feeling of obsolescence permeates our cultural psyche. Do you still use the same computer you bought in the early '90s? (Back then, did you even know where the @ symbol was on your keyboard?) Do you still use the same bank you did 10 years ago? Do you have the same health insurance coverage you had in the late '80s? Are you still using the same quality management system your company used in 1990? (For that matter, are you still working for the same company?)

 Of course, nothing stays the same forever, nor should it. However, the pace of change in the 1990s has been staggering. Management philosophies and gurus have sprung up, grown rich and disappeared at warp speed. In the '80s, Chrysler perched on the edge of bankruptcy, nearly brought down by high-quality Japanese imports. Now, as the '90s draw to a close, Chrysler records its staggering profits in marks instead of dollars, while Japan's Nissan begs the Japanese government for loans. Japan's savings and loans are failing at a rate that makes our S&L bailout pale in comparison. And a tumble in Thailand's stock market last year declawed the Asian tiger, routed the Russian ruble and left the entire financial world holding its breath waiting for the results of Brazil's presidential election.

A little-known European phenomenon called ISO 9000 exploded onto the world scene this decade, giving birth to a host of new requirements with cryptic names like QS-9000, TL 9000, AS9000 and TR16949. What many people dismissed as a fad a few years ago has become the price of admission for doing business globally. Yet, people constantly ask me if this ISO "thing" will last. With nearly 200,000 sites registered to ISO 9000 around the world and an entire new industry -- registration services -- firmly entrenched, ISO 9000 and its derivatives are here to stay.

Traditional quality control has also changed radically during the last decade. The integration of computers and metrology systems has revolutionized a once labor-intensive, time-consuming process. Inspectors are disappearing faster than typewriters. Products can now be measured automatically as they are manufactured. Plus, enterprisewide software and the Internet allow companies to share real-time data with any of their manufacturing facilities anywhere on the planet. SPC has gone from slide rules in the '60s to calculators in the '70s to PCs in the '80s to handheld, real-time personal digital assistants in the '90s.

Yet, with all the changes that have occurred, we've just scratched the surface of the changes yet to come. Quality guru Joseph M. Juran recently told me that the 21st century, not the 20th, will be remembered as the century of quality. We've only just laid the foundation for the changes to come, he says. The first decade of the new millennium will so radically change the way we work and manufacture products that we can scarcely conceive what life will be like. For example, how will metrology systems work in the orbiting factories of tomorrow?


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