Accidental Destiny

From tool and die maker to quality institute director

by Paul Harding

John Ruskin once said, "Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort."1 How many of us who work in quality came into the profession by accident?

I, for one, can raise my hand.

In the beginning

I started my career as an apprentice tool and die maker. It’s not that I didn’t practice quality. Tool and die making is all about quality, as it teaches you how to plan and pay attention to detail.

It also teaches you how to follow a predetermined sequence of activities to achieve the end result. More importantly, tool and die making teaches you about understanding tolerance bands and how many individual parts come together to make the finished assembled product.

Tool and die makers also need to work as team players, as they often depend on specialist machinists who are contributing to the tool and die process by providing detailed precision parts from different sources that ultimately make up the final tool.

A tool and die maker also knows that an inadequate individual part cannot be transformed into a final quality product. Once the assembled tool has been completed, there is also no hiding place. The tool finally goes into the appropriate production machine, where it either produces an acceptable component part to the correct tolerance levels, or it doesn’t.

From there, my career continued following a straight path: tool and die maker, tool and die designer, tooling project planner and tooling division manager, finally taking me to my newly adopted country, South Africa. 

Then, one day, my managing director told me, "As of Monday, you are our new production department quality manager." I was not too impressed. "How can I manage someone else’s poor quality?" I asked. His reply was: "Well, my quality manager has just resigned, and you are available. Just do it."

Learning the concepts

It was soon apparent to me that volume and speed were the production department’s priorities—with little understanding of quality concepts—and that quality control managers needed to fight for their cause.

My first task was to read a few books on the theory of quality, which to a former tool and die maker was just applying common sense and using some basic statistical tools. After attending a few quality courses and conferences and being introduced to more statistical process control principles, I soon was able to monitor the various processes and bring the scrap under control, usually by repairing the tool and training the operator.

I became so fascinated with quality that I completed more quality courses and was eventually invited by the South African Production Management Institute to teach quality to local industries on its behalf in my spare time. I was also tasked with heading up the team to introduce ISO 9001: 1994 to my organization, covering five manufacturing plants in the automotive sector. 

Later, I was invited to speak at some local quality conferences and was amazed at how little people knew about basic quality concepts. After a few visits to Japan and automotive plants around the world, my knowledge moved from advanced quality concepts to hoshin kanri principles and business improvement practice. I then became part of the ISO/TC 176 committee in South Africa and was appointed as the manufacturing representative in South Africa to be part of the working group that developed ISO 9001:2000.

As my passion for quality increased, I was appointed to a number of quality organizations—I became a senior member of the South African Society for Quality and sat on the board of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). A year ago, the SAQI board asked if I could take over the institute as interim managing director to help expand the quality message in South Africa. I was then appointed as vice chairman of the services sector education and training authority quality chamber board in South Africa.  

Looking ahead

When I started as a tool and die maker 40 years ago, I had no idea I’d someday be working in quality. I recently returned from Shanghai, China, where I spoke at a Shanghai Association for Quality symposium. The event included international quality professionals and university lecturers, who addressed the key issues of quality in a competitive world during an economic downturn.  

The usual themes were discussed: lean Six Sigma, quality and excellence awards, competitive advantage and how the introduction of ISO 9001:2008 and ISO 9004:2009 can contribute to business sustainability.

Of course, I understand these concepts—I attended the University of Cape Town in my later years and then earned a master’s degree in industrial administration. The basic concepts of quality, however, are the same as they were in my formative tool and die making career: Plan your activities, pay attention to detail, don’t take shortcuts, understand the big picture, work within the tolerance band and don’t accept inferior product to put into the process.

Finally, understand the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. And never forget John Ruskin’s immortal words.


  1. John Ruskin, http://thinkexist.com/quotation/quality_is_never_an_accident-it_is_always_the/11257.html.

Paul Harding is managing director of the South African Quality Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. He earned his master’s degree in industrial administration from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He is a member of ASQ.

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