Developing a specifically Japanese quality strategy
The career of Kaoru Ishikawa in some ways parallels the economic history of contemporary Japan. Ishikawa, like Japan as a whole, learned the basics of statistical quality control developed by Americans. But just as Japan's economic accomplishments are not limited to imitating foreign products, so the country's quality achievements—and Ishikawa's in particular—go well beyond the efficient application of imported ideas.
Perhaps Ishikawa's most important contribution has been his key role in the development of a specifically Japanese quality strategy. The hallmark of the Japanese approach is broad involvement in quality, not only top to bottom within the organization, but also start to finish in the product life cycle.
The bottom-up approach is best exemplified by the quality circle. As a member of the editorial board of Quality Control for the Foreman, as chief executive director of Quality Control Circle Headquarters at the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE), and as editor of JUSE's two books on quality circles (QC Circle Koryo and How to Operate QC Circle Activities), Ishikawa played a major role in the growth of quality circles.
One of Ishikawa's early achievements contributed to the success of quality circles. The cause-and-effect diagram—often called the Ishikawa diagram and perhaps the achievement for which he is best known—has provided a powerful tool that can easily be used by non-specialists to analyze and solve problems.
Although the quality circle was developed in Japan, it spread to more than 50 countries, a development Ishikawa never foresaw. Originally, Ishikawa believed circles depended on factors unique to Japanese society. But after seeing circles thrive in Taiwan and South Korea, he theorized that circles could succeed in any country that used the Chinese alphabet. Ishikawa's reasoning was that the Chinese alphabet, one of the most difficult writing systems in the world, can be mastered only after a great deal of study; thus, hard work and the desire for education became part of the character of those nations. Within a few years, however, the success of circles around the world led him to a new conclusion: Circles work because they appeal to the democratic nature of humankind. "Wherever they are, human beings are human beings," Ishikawa wrote in a 1980 preface to the English translation of the Koryo.
In How to Operate QC Circle Activities, Ishikawa calls middle and upper management the parent-teacher association of quality control circles. Although circles were one of the earliest Japanese ideas about quality to be popularized in the West, Ishikawa was always aware of the importance of top management support. Support from the top is a key element in Japan's all encompassing quality strategy: company-wide quality control (CWQC), perhaps best described in Ishikawa's What is Total Quality Control? The Japanese Way. Ishikawa's work with top management and CWQC covered decades. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he developed quality control courses for executives and for top managers. He also helped launch the Annual Quality Control Conference for Top Management in 1963.
As a member of the committee for the Deming Prize, Ishikawa developed the rigorous audit system that determines whether companies qualify for the prize. That audit requires the participation of the company's top executives. According to Ishikawa, that active, visible participation—rather than the acclaim that goes with the prize—is the biggest benefit a winner receives.
If top-down, bottom-up involvement is one axis of CWQC, the other is an emphasis on quality throughout the product life cycle. Here, too, Ishikawa was involved since 1959, particularly in the development of a quality control system for new product development.
Ishikawa was also involved in efforts to promote quality ideas throughout Japan, both in industry and among consumers. As chairman of the quality control National Conference committee for over 30 years, Ishikawa played a central role in the expanding scope of those conferences.
Ishikawa was also active in other efforts to promote quality. For example, he wrote several books explaining statistics to the nonspecialist. One of these, the Guide to Quality Control, was translated into English and became a staple in the quality training programs of corporations in the United States.
In addition, Ishikawa served as chairman of the editorial board of the monthly Statistical Quality Control and the quarterly Reports of Statistical Applications Research. As chairman of Japan's Quality Month committee, Ishikawa was involved in the selection of Japan's quality mark and quality flag.
Ishikawa was involved in Japanese and international standardization activities beginning in the 1950s. In his Shewhart Medal acceptance speech, Ishikawa called standardization and quality control "two wheels of the same cart." His emphasis might be surprising to some who think of standards as rigid and unchanging, but Ishikawa stressed the need for standards to change, and the dangers of clumsy enforcement of standards. In his view, effective standards must be built on a quality analysis of customer needs. When the analysis had not been conducted—as is often the case with national and international standards—Ishikawa recommended reliance on consumer needs rather than standards.
ASQ established the Ishikawa Medal in 1993 to recognize leadership in the human side of quality. The medal is awarded annually in honor of Ishikawa to an individual or team for outstanding leadership in improving the human aspects of quality.
Throughout his career, Ishikawa worked on very practical matters, but always within a larger philosophical framework. In its broadest sense, Ishikawa's work was intended to produce what he called a "thought revolution" new ideas about quality that could revitalize industry. The wide acceptance of many of Ishikawa's ideas—and the numerous honors he has received from around the world show how successful his revolution has been.