The Rock Stars of Quality

As the parent of a teenager, I try to keep up with contemporary music, mainly for defensive reasons but also because my son and I share similar tastes. When it comes to shelling out my hard-earned cash for live music, however, I tend to retreat to the favorites of my own youth.

Every time I attend an “oldie but goody’s” concert, I’m amazed at the number of twentysomethings and younger people also paying to see even lesser-known rock gods of the past. For example, in mid-May I went to a concert by Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson, who both made their mark in the 1980s—about the time some of my fellow concertgoers were born.

A few days after that concert, during ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement in Seattle, I facilitated a session with Genichi Taguchi, considered one of the gurus of quality. I was struck by the number of younger people in the 300+ audience and how they asked the most questions.

The next day, Armand V. Feigenbaum, another guru, held a similar session that drew nearly 400 people, including quite a few younger quality professionals. (For photos of Taguchi and Feigenbaum with their fans, see p. 15.)

That’s when it occurred to me: The surviving gurus—including Joseph M. Juran, who at age 100 rarely travels but whose insights are still eagerly followed—are the rock stars of the quality world. Like Paul McCartney and others who’ve reigned for decades, Feigenbaum, Juran and Taguchi are still contributing, drawing crowds and resonating with audiences of all ages.

Will we ever see their likes again? Sure, we all know of current leaders in quality, not only those recognizable through their writing and speaking but also unsung leaders who work in each of our organizations. But what about revolutionary, Beatlelike luminaries—the next Walter Shewhart, W. Edwards Deming, Phil Crosby or Kaoru Ishikawa?

Perhaps the world has changed too much from when the gurus began their remarkable careers. Quality is no longer a differentiator in the marketplace; product or service quality is a basic customer expectation. Rather than improving organizations that comprise an individual nation or economy, quality now has to help every organization compete on a global scale.

Still, plenty of opportunities lie ahead for quality and its practitioners. Many organizations have yet to embrace it as a systematic way to run a business and achieve overall excellence. Quality has only begun to have an impact in sectors outside of manufacturing, such as service, education and healthcare. And quality tools and concepts are a natural to spur advancements in other fields, like safety, risk management, innovation and sustainability.

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