Cole's Response to Commentaries - ASQ

Cole’s Response to Commentaries

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Robert E. Cole, University Of California-Berkeley

Mark Finster and Kim Melton provide extremely useful elaborations of the themes developed in my article; they also demonstrate various links to other theories and frameworks such as Kano’s distinction between offensive and defensive quality, design of experiments, and Chris Argyris’ distinction between single-loop and double-loop learning. I agree with Melton that the focus on defect detection and elimination of error in upstream production is an incomplete description of the quality professionals’ role. The question is whether in practice their activities have been too heavily focused on this form of defensive quality.

F. C. ‘Ted’ Weston Jr.’s comments are more problematic. He confuses the expression of ideas in the past with their actual implementation in new forms at other times. Citing Morris and Ferguson, he notes that control over proprietary architecture leads to marketplace advantages. Surely this is true. He further notes that this control is not inconsistent with continuous improvement. Surely this is also true. Then he says that if firms with such proprietary architecture do not continuously improve, they may lose their dominance. Certainly that is plausible as well.

Weston makes these points to demonstrate that the role of continuous improvement in discontinuous innovation has been documented in the past. Certainly this is true. The fact that it has been discussed in the past, however, is no guarantee that it is part of the contemporary working knowledge of managers and quality professionals and is systematically applied. To argue as Weston has done would be like saying that the seeds of continuous improvement can be found in the thinking of many early U.S. industrial engineers, and, therefore, nothing that happened since then is particularly new or interesting. Yet, it took the competitive threat of the Japanese in the 1980s to revitalize and reorganize and bring continuous improvement thinking back into popular favor in the form of new approaches.

My objective was not only to stress the need for a more expansive view of continuous improvement but to also link a specific set of continuous improvement practices to the role of contemporary quality professionals. In a similar vein, to say as Weston does, that “probe and learn has been alive and well for the last 30 years” is to miss the point. It is only in the last 15 years that the impact of radically new developments has been seen. These include: new information technologies, the impact of the Internet, and new hardware and software that make rapid prototyping truly rapid. Organizations are only beginning to learn to optimize the use of these new tools and harness them to a learning strategy. Moreover, the payoffs for an effective and efficient probe-and-learn strategy have become far greater in a world in which time-to-market and uncertainty are increasingly important. One of my major goals was to suggest that quality professionals need to see probe and learn as central to their mission of providing customers with products and services that reliably and effectively meet their needs in a timely fashion.

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