Think Big

To plan for the future, consider your systems, context and customers

by Peter Merrill

When I learned this edition of QP was focusing on the future of quality, I did some online searches for quotes about "the future." I was surprised by how little I found.

There was the quote widely used by innovators: "The best way to predict the future is to create it." This quote has been widely attributed to management expert Peter Drucker—but I also found an attribution to Abraham Lincoln. It would seem there has been little new knowledge introduced since his time.

There also was a quote attributed to Confucius: "Study the past if you would define the future." Winston Churchill played with these words and said: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." This is, of course, the basis for statistical analysis and sparks the great debate separating special cause from common cause. I love mathematics and its philosophy.

If we look at past trends, we may be able to predict future direction. However, complexity makes that increasingly difficult. So predicting the future of quality in this increasingly complex world won’t be easy.

Defining quality

Having talked about the future, let’s talk a bit about quality. In my May 2015 column,1 I gave a brief history of quality and acknowledged Stephen Hawking, borrowing some of his words.

Work in quality and ASQ started with "QC," or quality control, although I shudder when I hear the term used today. Being a disciple of the school of prevention, I see QC as representing checking "after the fact," which is now known to be immature thinking.

This takes me to one of the tipping points in the evolution of quality—the work of Philip B. Crosby. His skill was to simplify what had become a complex discipline. His four absolutes captured the essence of quality:

  1. Quality is conformance to requirements.
  2. The system for quality is prevention.
  3. The standard for quality is zero defects.
  4. The measure of quality is the price of nonconformance.

I remember when I taught at the quality college and explained this on the first morning to a class of nonbelievers. That was a long time ago, and today, most of Crosby’s absolutes are implicit in our thinking.

Or are they? In ISO 9000, the definition of quality is not "conformance to requirements." It used to be "the totality of features and characteristics of a product and/or service that bear upon its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs."2 What an appalling definition, in my opinion.

In 2000, it was simplified to "the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfills requirements."3 The words "of an object" were added in 2015.4 And yet, throughout ISO 9001, the words "conformance to requirements" are still used. In ISO 9000:2015, the definition flies in the face of zero defects thinking.

There is an apocryphal story about Texas Instruments in the 1980s ordering its first offshore consignment of 1,000 microchips. It decided to be tough on the supplier and demanded a 99% acceptable quality level. The consignment arrived in a large gray box together with a small red box and a note. The note said: "The gray box contains your order and the red box contains the 10 faulty microchips you requested. We are unsure why you wanted these." You can see why I have a problem with that ISO 9000 definition.

Crosby also succeeded in having people understand that quality was everybody’s job, not just the job of the quality department. Quality management emerged through the work of W. Edwards Deming, Joseph M. Juran and Crosby.

Systems thinking

In the 1990s, systems thinking emerged, and I recall seeing writer and futurist Alvin Toffler’s keynote at ASQ’s (then ASQC) Quality Congress when he talked about the knowledge society and this new concept of systems thinking.

I purchased James Gleick’s book, Chaos,5 on chaos theory as I continued to try and understand the attributes of systems. I bought Albert-László Barabási’s book, Linked,6 about network theory to further my understanding. I confess, my understanding of systems did not happen overnight, but I’m glad I took the time to seek the knowledge.

Today, understanding of systems has been helped by work done in environmental management and IT. Understanding systems is essential to understanding quality.

When I teach an ASQ virtual course on cost of quality, I take the time to explain what Juran called "the law of 10." Crosby called it the ripple effect, and Gleick called it the butterfly effect. It’s the idea that a small error at the drawing board or in capturing customer requirements can cost a company millions if it gets to litigation. Gleick said, "A butterfly flaps its wings in Singapore and this leads to a hurricane in the Caribbean."7 It’s all about prevention.

Prevention is applied at the start of systems activity. That’s why ISO 9001 struggled so long with preventive action as the last requirement in the standard, while ISO 14001 had prevention of pollution as its basic principle at the start of the standard. The challenge for the quality profession is that it has been drawn into dealing with failure and correction and now must think on a macro level instead of micro level to truly practice prevention.

Context is everything

There is much excitement around the word "risk" in the new 9001. For me, far more important is the word "context." I fear that quality professionals will simply do an internal failure mode and effects analysis to satisfy the standard, and a less-than-competent auditor will check the box to say the organization has complied with the requirement.

Context requires not just systems thinking but ecosystems thinking. Organizations that implement ISO 14001, the environmental management system standard, have been doing this the longest. It’s no accident that the new high-level structure of International Organization for Standardization (ISO) management system standards emerged from the combination of many different ISO technical committees—quality, environment, IT and even traffic management. It captures the best of many worlds.

Context asks you to address the external forces acting on your organization. This year, I worked with a number of different organizations on how to implement clause 4 of ISO 9001:2015 on context. Business leaders love it. It means that if you have lived in a micro world of correction, you now must move to a macro world of business strategy and systems thinking. Currency exchange rates, the labor market and new legislation are prime factors that I have seen affect a design engineering company, a small manufacturer and a financial services company, respectively.

We are in a world of rapid change and as Charles Darwin said, survivors will respond to change. Innovators embrace change, and that is why it is so easy to integrate innovation into the new ISO 9001 standard. Quality, to succeed, must move from thinking tactically to thinking about context and strategy.

Think: ‘customer’

Considering the direction in which quality is moving, it is no surprise that ASQ is moving into the world of innovation. ASQ’s Innovation Division describes innovation as "quality for tomorrow." That description recognizes that the quality profession must work far harder at identifying unmet needs, and those needs are not necessarily recognized by the customer in regard to the service or produce that is provided.

These quite different behaviors make it difficult. But in the world of quality, it’s important to find out from the customer:

  1. When did we waste your time?
  2. What were the biggest hassles?
  3. Which requirements were not clear?
  4. Where did you have trouble getting things done?

This should be done immediately, either on completion of a project or on delivery of an order to identify sources of customer dissatisfaction. 

A customer satisfaction survey has limited value for the business. Customer dissatisfaction is much more important knowledge and is found through direct conversation with the customer. There is a long-established credo in customer service that for every complaint you hear, there are five you don’t get to hear about, and the customer will probably download the pain of those five complaints to someone else—typically your competition.

What better reason to talk to the customer? That also means quality people speaking to members of the sales staff, which may be the quality professional’s challenge, while the salesperson’s challenge may be asking the customer questions where the answers are discomforting.

In an August 2015 QP article,8 I explained how W.L. Gore structured themselves so sales and quality worked together in self-managed teams. That company has an outstanding reputation for innovation.

This all means you must ask the customer the problem, not ask them for the answer. It then means imagining what might be, and this is, of course, innovation.

In my July 2012 column,9 I explained how the excellence models already had embraced innovation as a necessary attribute of a quality management system. Delivering quality has become the price of entry to the market. As quality is mastered, you must be agile and innovative to respond to the rapidly changing world outside. Address "quality for tomorrow" and be innovative. In short, context matters—think strategically, think preventively and think about the customer.


  1. Peter Merrill, "A Brief History of Quality," Quality Progress, May 2015, pp. 42-44.
  2. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 8402:1994—Quality management and quality assurance—Vocabulary.
  3. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 9000:2000—Quality management systems.
  4. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 9000:2015—Quality management systems—Fundamentals and vocabulary.
  5. James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, Penguin Books, 2008.
  6. Albert-László Barabási, Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life, Plume, 2003.
  7. Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, see reference 5.
  8. Peter Merrill, "Under Construction," Quality Progress, August 2015, pp. 14-19.
  9. Peter Merrill, "Time for a Change," Quality Progress, July 2012, pp. 42-43.

Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Systems, an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ and chair of the ASQ Innovation Division.

--Raj Subramani, 01-12-2016

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