In Our Defense
A funny thing about quality is that it is expanding and contracting at the same time.
It is expanding in the sense that its tools and techniques are moving away from the traditional manufacturing arena into areas such as education, government and health care. Yet it is contracting in the sense that quality is no longer perceived as a matter of crisis for many industries, and so it has receded in the general consciousness to the point of being a back burner issue.
These intersecting trends became particularly apparent for me recently in the town where I live, about 90 miles north of Milwaukee. There the school board has embarked on a quality initiative, which has in turn drawn derisive attacks from the local newspaper. A recent editorial in The Oshkosh Northwestern lampooned quality as yesterday's business strategy, unfit for use anywhere but the factory floor.
Now a lot of people question the wisdom of writing letters to the editor on the theory, as Pogo once said, that you should "never pick a fight with someone who buys their ink by the barrel." But in this case, I felt that someone had to rise to the defense of quality.
Quality is something the newspaper industry has been particularly reluctant to embrace. This is true even though a recent study from the American Society of Newspaper Editors said that defects, such as factual errors and spelling mistakes, were a leading cause of the decline in journalism's credibility.
So I wrote my letter to the editor in the spirit of friendly advice, suggesting that newspaper managers may want to consider using quality control techniques to improve their standing with readers. I think I touched a nerve. Although not everything I wrote was printed, enough of my point got across that I received a nice letter from one of the city's principals, thanking me for stating the case for quality.
As quality moves out into society, it will face the same kind of skepticism it has experienced within the business sector and will be considered fair game by lots of newspaper editors. To make matters worse, it is going to be applied in areas, such as education, where the measurement systems are muddled by competing political agendas and where success is difficult to define.
My experience suggests that urging newspapers to pay attention to their own quality problems may help to ensure that quality gets a fair hearing when its utility in the public sector comes under scrutiny.