ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum


Online Edition - July 2002

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The Way They Saw It

When we decided to focus on the future for this issue of News for a Change, we thought it might be worthwhile to take a look at previous predictions that had been made. Here’s a short walk down memory lane, where Miles Maguire summarizes information from 10 previously published looks at the past and the future of quality and teams.

Economist Edgar R. Fiedler once wrote, “He who lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass.” Indeed, researchers who study the accuracy of business and technological predictions say that 60% to 80% of them miss their mark.

And yet, looking to the future and trying to figure it out is an irresistible urge—and can be useful even if your crystal ball rolls off your desk and shatters into pieces. A flawed forecast can provide intellectual stimulation, and predictions do have power. Sometimes—particularly when they are premonitions of impending doom—they don’t come true simply because they were made.

Forecasts about the future of quality and participation have been tossed around since at least the mid-1980s, when the early surge of corporate interest in quality circles and employee involvement began to wane, and we began to wonder what would happen next.

At that point, quality and teams had made their impact on the business scene, but uneven implementation was a worry. It looked like the future of employee involvement could take many different shapes—self-managed teams, quality of work-life programs, labor-management cooperative committees, or employee stock ownership programs.

“After 13 years of quality circles experience—after the stages of euphoria, after the negative reactions, after the over-expectations—it is time for a calm assessment. We must examine our activities to see what we are doing right and wrong,” said Wayne S. Rieker, of Rieker Management Systems, in an address to the IAQC Ninth Annual Conference and Resource Mart in April 1987.

He predicted that the next stage of employee involvement would be a broad-based approach that made teams and participation central to quality improvement programs implemented in a systematic way.

A Boost From Baldrige

This vision received a major boost a few months later when President Reagan signed the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Improvement Act of 1987. From the beginning, the Baldrige system called on companies to improve by recognizing the importance of “worker involvement in quality” while making better use of strategic planning and statistical techniques. This type of through-going approach is sometimes called total quality management or more often just TQM.

By the close of the decade, many observers saw TQM as the dominant paradigm for teams and quality, but they also recognized that there were numerous challenges to address. While some companies were scoring major quality victories—such as Florida Power and Light’s Deming Prize in 1989—the overall picture wasn’t so glorious. Faddishness, impatience for results, and fighting among quality professionals led to a new round of introspection in the early 1990s.

When quality gurus were asked to make some predictions for the last decade of the 20th century, they offered a range of ideas:

  • Globalization would lead to a growing interest in quality among industrial buyers around the world.
  • Teams would become focused on specific goals.
  • More senior managers would embrace quality and learn to love it.
  • Accounting systems would accurately reflect the value of quality improvements and the cost of quality failures.
  • Union leaders would become more involved in implementing employee involvement.
  • The structure of teams would evolve from the basic quality circle into a variety of forms.

Unexpected Developments

Several developments were not fully anticipated by these prognosticators—notably the recession of the early 1990s that helped make reengineering and restructuring so popular, or the long bull market that made many companies and workers focus on short-term results, or the explosion in information sharing facilitated by the Internet. But to some extent, many of their predictions came true.

ISO 9000 and its sector-specific variants have brought quality systems and standards to organizations throughout the supply chain and around the world. Six Sigma has helped quality teams focus on specific results while making at least some CEOs, such as former GE Chairman Jack Welch, into veritable cheerleaders for quality. Companies like Dell Computer have proven the power of sharing information and ideas in a wide circle that includes both customers and suppliers.

On the other hand, other predictions are still playing out, like the one about quality accounting. It’s possible that post-Enron, accountants will take another look at what and how they are measuring. But “I am mighty worried about the uninspired way the enormous benefits of team activities remain unaccounted for,” AQP co-founder Don Dewar remarked in 1999.

Dewar’s comments came as part of a panel discussion on the new millennium. One of the panel’s key predictions was that teams, employee involvement, and participative management would only grow in significance. Employee demands for control over their work lives, the need for knowledgeable workers, and the explosive growth of small businesses were some of the reasons given.

At the beginning of the 21st century there can be no question but that quality and teams have improved our world dramatically. But ironically enough, their very success has diminished their stature. Ideas that were once considered cutting edge have become commonplace and may be taken for granted.

Fast and Flexible

In this highly ambiguous environment—made more so by the events of September 11 and the shadowy war on terrorism—it’s hard to know what to expect. When a recent study of the future of quality was conducted in 1999, it didn’t even try to project specific events but rather examined a range of alternative scenarios, from optimistic to pessimistic to status quo.

Gregory H. Watson, former ASQ chairman, said at the time that whatever specific variables may come into play, there were some constants that need to be considered no matter what.

“The pursuit of quality must change,” he said, “becoming more innovative, flexible, and faster at implementation of effective solutions.” In addition, “quality professionals cannot afford to be passive but must establish personal plans for development that help them to grow both a broader understanding of business and the required technical and statistical skills that will serve them in the next millennium.”

MILES MAGUIRE, a former editor of Quality Progress, writes frequently on business and management issues in the publishing industry. He is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and holds an MBA from Baltimore’s Loyola College.

REFERENCES

  1. Donovan, Michael, “The Future of Excellence and Quality,” The Journal for Quality and Participation, March 1988.
  2. Gibbons, Steve, “Business Experts Ponder the Past, Present, and Future,” The Journal for Quality and Participation, November/December 1999.
  3. Gibson, Price, “The Future of Union Involvement,” The Journal for Quality and Participation, March 1988.
  4. Karabatsos, Nancy, “Quality in Transition, Part 1: Account of the ‘80s,” Quality Progress, December 1989.
  5. Karabatsos, Nancy,”Quality in Transition, Part 2: A Narrative for the ‘90s,” Quality Progress, January 1990.
  6. National Institute of Standards and Technology, “History of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award,” available at http://www.quality.nist.gov/History.htm .
  7. Rieker, Wayne, “Where Are We Headed?” The Journal for Quality and Participation, December 1987.
  8. Schnaars, Steven P., Megamistakes: Forecasting and the Myth of Rapid Technological Change (New York: The Free Press, 1989).
  9. Stephenson, D.B., “Famous Forecasting Quotes,” available at http://www.lsp.ups-tlse.fr/Stephen/STATS/quotes.html .
  10. Watson, Gregory H., “Back to the Future,” Quality Progress, December 1999.

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 In This Issue...
The Role of Quality and Teams in the 21st Century

The Way They Saw It

Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?


 
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