Defining Quality

Late last year I had the opportunity to talk about quality to a group of undergraduates.

They were honors program students who had recently encountered the notion of quality as described in Robert M. Pirsig's 1974 bestseller, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is a semiautobiographical account of the author's battle with mental illness and his efforts to achieve emotional well-being through "an inquiry into values."

In the book Pirsig explores the concept of quality from the standpoint of philosophy and metaphysics, with a touch of Eastern mysticism thrown in. Pirsig comes to the conclusion that quality is better left undefined, arguing that any definition will diminish its very essence.

It's a far better book than this short description suggests, which is why it is still being taught on college campuses today. And it's interesting to contemplate how Pirsig pushed the idea of pursuing quality into the popular imagination in the mid-1970s and perhaps helped set the stage for the embrace of quality that came following NBC's 1980 documentary "If Japan Can, Why Can't We." (This was the program that made W. Edwards Deming a well-known name in U.S. management circles.)

In any case, my task was to explain to about 75 students that quality can be defined, that it can be defined quantitatively and that a quantitative understanding of quality can be used in a variety of powerful ways to improve products, services and even organizations. The students listened carefully and asked good questions. The kind of quality that I was talking about was clearly news to them.

But those students are not alone in their unfamiliarity with quality. The general public's lack of knowledge and understanding about quality has become clear on a national scale in the wake of this year's presidential election.

The fact that elementary principles of process management and quality control are not employed by elections officials in Florida--and around the country--is distressing. On the other hand, the situation presents an opportunity for the quality profession to teach a lesson to the country about ways to improve the operation of our democracy.

Two items in this month's issue provide insight into how the profession can address this matter. See Greg Watson's "Comments on Quality" (p. 16) and "ASQ News" (p. 18), which describes a new position paper, written by ASQ's Government Division on improving the quality of election processes.

This is clearly a case where a precise definition of quality is required.

MAGUIRE, M. tiff copy
  Miles Maguire

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