Finding Inspiration From Quality Leaders

In December I had the privilege of spending time listening to and learning from Paul O’Neill, a quality thought leader, 2013 Juran Medalist, and  former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

It was one of the most profound engagements I have ever had.  As some of you know, Secretary O’Neill was chairman and CEO of Alcoa from 1987 to 1999, where he retired as chairman at the end of 2000.  He was indisputably and famously successful increasing both the market value and the revenue of Alcoa many times over.  He is now immersed in taking the principles of quality and using them to fix the enormous problems the U.S. faces in healthcare.  As an acknowledged expert in healthcare economics, he uses the same quality principles he espoused and enforced at Alcoa to help healthcare executives and providers cut waste and increase effectiveness and safety.

Secretary O’Neill was gracious, welcoming and fascinating.  He was interested in me as an individual and interested in what we are doing at ASQ.  I asked him to help me understand what he did at Alcoa to be so successful and what I might glean from his current work in the healthcare industry.  I can’t possibly do justice to all he told me, but I will highlight three points that made an enormous impression on me.

  • First, when he went to Alcoa, he surprised everyone by what he made his top priority.  It was not increasing shareholder value, capturing market share, or increasing profits.  It was worker safety.  His board and his top management team were incredulous.  Sure, safety on the job was important, but the most important thing we do?  The CEO’s top priority?  Yes, because, as Secretary O’Neill explained to me, your people are the most precious asset you have.  When they are injured, you don’t have just an interruption in the work, you have real human suffering.  No profit is worth that. Furthermore, on-the-job injuries are enormously expensive and produce absolutely nothing.  Workplace injuries violate the trust between the workers and the company.  The workers count on management to keep them safe even while they do hazardous work.  Finally, if an enterprise cannot instill and enforce the discipline to keep workers safe, what other forms of indiscipline are tolerated?  Sloppy work?  Tardiness and absenteeism?  Low standards tend to breed more low standards.
  • The second point I took away resonated with me as much as the first.  It is simply to treat everyone with dignity and respect.  As CEO Paul O’Neill spoke to everyone as equals and he did not let the trappings of being CEO get in the way of honest, respectful, authentic person-to-person interactions.  This sounded very familiar to me.  In my military career, one of the first things drilled into our heads was called “Schofield’s Definition of Discipline” from General John Schofield (1879).  It expresses a similar theme, “The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment… He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.”
  • The third point sounds simple, but its implications are unforgiving and pervasive.  It is that your aim must be to be the best in the world at everything you do.  This is a radical departure from what most of us think of as improvement. It does not say be better than last year or be better than the guy down the street.  It says you must drive to be the best in the world and he meant exactly that.  When I pressed him on this point, he explained you have to figure out theoretical perfection, measure yourself against that standard, and then figure out how to get there.  You then start systematically eliminating everything that is keeping you from attaining that theoretical level of perfection, keep measuring, and don’t stop until you get there.  My guess is that’s where even a leader as good as Paul O’Neill will lose a lot of potential followers. If you really mean it, this part is very, very tough.  But, as Secretary O’Neill told me, it is also a lot of fun!  I intend to find out.

Keeping all this in mind, my question to you is: Have you met someone whose teachings on quality influenced you or inspired you? What were these lessons? You might name a famous quality guru, but I would encourage you to think of those outside the quality field who nevertheless can teach us key lessons about quality.

Postscript: On a related note about leaders who value quality, I’d like to mention the passing of the former New York State Government Mario Cuomo last week. You may not know of Cuomo or support his politics if you did, but I think it’s worth pointing out how a government leader can be a champion of quality, even if we don’t consider him or her a “quality professional” per se.

For example, Governor Cuomo helped transform New York State’s local motor vehicle departments, reducing wait times and increasing efficiency. He also paved the way for New York’s version of the Baldrige award (then called the Governor’s Excelsior Award and now part of Partners in Performance Excellence). This award led the way in areas beyond traditional quality, including education, health care and not-for-profits. Governor Cuomo made it clear that quality was the standard, and this standard was recognized and aspired to throughout New York State government.

The takeaway: No matter where you’re located, leadership counts.

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6 Responses to Finding Inspiration From Quality Leaders

  1. Cecilia Kimberlin says:


    Thanks for sharing your inspiring insights and takeaways from your discussion with Secretary O’Neill. Aspiring to be the best, to strive toward excellence – for me, these describe ASQ’s aspirations – certainly to build upon and sustain our learnings from the past- but at the same time, to set new standards, find new avenues and applications, use innovation – in striving toward excellence. I see ASQ’s role as better enabling our Members to be “Servant Leaders of Quality” – they lead quality at every level – from entry levels to the executive suites – as they serve the greater mission of quality by serving others, sharing their learnings, and continuing their professional pursuit of excellence.

  2. Fitz-George Carty says:

    I am a former employee of Alcoa. I met Paul O’Neill while working in the Alcoa Jamaican Operations .I took him on a tour of the facility and he was alarmed at the methods that we were using to clean the Chemical process equipment ,especially the impact on the health and safety of the personnel involved.He challenged us to ensure that on his return we would replace this industry wide and time tested method.
    We successfully improved the methods although I believed that Mr. O’Neill was crazy at first. He is the only true example of a successful “Values Driven” leader that I have encountered .I respect and honor him and I congratulate you for this article.

  3. Lorna says:

    Thank You! I loved this article.. both for its content and the way in which it was presented.

    The last sentence ‘The takeaway: No matter where you’re located, leadership counts.’ reminded me of brain-storming sessions which we had twenty years ago in our Caribbean-based Society for Quality. We knew that ‘quality’ was a practical way of life, not restricted to any profession or discipline. This meant that while planning our Annual Quality Day Breakfast Meetings, in order to reach a wider audience, we considered guest speakers who embraced the value and essence of ‘quality’ rather than only persons within our professional circles.

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