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Learn About Quality

The History of Quality

Quality in the Medieval Guilds of Europe

The quality movement can trace its roots back to medieval Europe, where craftsmen began organizing into unions called guilds in the late 13th century. These guilds were responsible for developing strict rules for product and service quality. Inspection committees enforced the rules by marking flawless goods with a special mark or symbol.

Craftsmen themselves often placed a second mark on the goods they produced. At first this mark was used to track the origin of faulty items. But over time the mark came to represent a craftsman’s good reputation. Inspection marks and master craftsmen marks served as proof of quality for customers throughout medieval Europe. This approach to manufacturing quality was dominant until the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century.

Quality in The Industrial Revolution

Until the early 19th century, manufacturing in the industrialized world tended to follow this craftsmanship model. The factory system, with its emphasis on product inspection, started in Great Britain in the mid-1750s and grew into the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. American quality practices evolved in the 1800s as they were shaped by changes in predominant production methods.


In the early 19th century, manufacturing in the United States tended to follow the craftsmanship model used in the European countries. Since most craftsmen sold their goods locally, each had a tremendous personal stake in meeting customers’ needs for quality. If quality needs weren’t met, the craftsman ran the risk of losing customers not easily replaced. Therefore, masters maintained a form of quality control by inspecting goods before sale.

The Factory System

The factory system, a product of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, began to divide the craftsmen’s trades into specialized tasks. This forced craftsmen to become factory workers and forced shop owners to become production supervisors, and marked an initial decline in employees’ sense of empowerment and autonomy in the workplace. Quality in the factory system was ensured through the skill of laborers supplemented by audits and/or inspections. Defective products were either reworked or scrapped.

The Taylor System

Late in the 19th century the United States broke further from European tradition and adopted a new management approach developed by Frederick W. Taylor, whose goal was to increase productivity without increasing the number of skilled craftsmen. He achieved this by assigning factory planning to specialized engineers and by using craftsmen and supervisors as inspectors and managers who executed the engineers’ plans.

Taylor’s approach led to remarkable rises in productivity, but the new emphasis on productivity had a negative effect on quality. To remedy the quality decline, factory managers created inspection departments to keep defective products from reaching customers.

Quality in World War II

After entering World War II, the United States enacted legislation to help gear the civilian economy to military production. During this period, quality became a critical component of the war effort and an important safety issue. Unsafe military equipment was clearly unacceptable, and the U.S. armed forces inspected virtually every unit produced to ensure that it was safe for operation. This practice required huge inspection forces and caused problems in recruiting and retaining competent inspection personnel.

To ease the problems without compromising product safety, the armed forces began to use sampling inspection to replace unit-by-unit inspection. With the aid of industry consultants, particularly from Bell Laboratories, they adapted sampling tables and published them in a military standard, known as Mil-Std-105. These tables were incorporated into the military contracts so suppliers clearly understood what they were expected to produce.

The armed forces also helped suppliers improve quality by sponsoring training courses in Walter Shewhart’s statistical quality control (SQC) techniques.

Quality in the Early 20th Century

The beginning of the 20th century marked the inclusion of "processes" in quality practices. A "process" is defined as a group of activities that takes an input, adds value to it, and provides an output. Walter Shewhart began to focus on controlling processes in the mid-1920s, making quality relevant not only for the finished product but for the processes that created it.

Shewhart recognized that industrial processes yield data. Shewhart determined this data could be analyzed using statistical techniques to see whether a process is stable and in control, or if it is being affected by special causes that should be fixed. In doing so, Shewhart laid the foundation for control charts, a modern-day quality tool.

W. Edwards Deming, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Census Bureau, became a proponent of Shewhart’s SQC methods and later became a leader of the quality movement in both Japan and the United States.

The History of Total Quality in America

The birth of total quality in the United States was in direct response to a quality revolution in Japan following World War II, as major Japanese manufacturers converted from producing military goods for internal use to producing civilian goods for trade.

At first, Japan had a widely held reputation for shoddy exports, and their goods were shunned by international markets. This led Japanese organizations to explore new ways of thinking about quality.

Deming, Juran, and Japan

The Japanese welcomed input from foreign companies and lecturers, including two American quality experts:

  • W. Edwards Deming, who had become frustrated with American managers when most programs for statistical quality control were terminated once the war and government contracts came to and end.
  • Joseph M. Juran, who predicted the quality of Japanese goods would overtake the quality of goods produced in the United States by the mid-1970s because of Japan’s revolutionary rate of quality improvement.

Japan’s strategies represented the new "total quality" approach. Rather than relying purely on product inspection, Japanese manufacturers focused on improving all organizational processes through the people who used them. As a result, Japan was able to produce higher-quality exports at lower prices, benefiting consumers throughout the world.

The American Total Quality Management Response

At first, U.S. manufacturers held onto to their assumption that Japanese success was price-related, and thus responded to Japanese competition with strategies aimed at reducing domestic production costs and restricting imports. This, of course, did nothing to improve American competitiveness in quality.

As years passed, price competition declined while quality competition continued to increase. The chief executive officers of major U.S. corporations stepped forward to provide personal leadership in the quality movement. The U.S. response, emphasizing not only statistics but approaches that embraced the entire organization, became known as Total Quality Management (TQM).

Several other quality initiatives followed. The ISO 9000 series of quality-management standards, for example, were published in 1987. The Baldrige National Quality Program and Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award were established by the U.S. Congress the same year. American companies were at first slow to adopt the standards but eventually came on board.

Beyond Total Quality Management

As the 21st century begins, the quality movement has matured. New quality systems have evolved beyond the foundations laid by Deming, Juran, and the early Japanese practitioners of quality.

Some examples of this maturation in quality management include:

  • Most recently in 2015, the ISO 9001 standard was revised to increase emphasis on risk management.
  • In 2000, the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards was revised to increase emphasis on customer satisfaction.
  • Beginning in 1995, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award added a business results criterion to its measures of applicant success.
  • Six Sigma, a methodology developed by Motorola to improve its business processes by minimizing defects, evolved into an organizational approach that achieved breakthroughs and significant bottom-line results.
  • Quality function deployment was developed by Dr. Yoji Akao as a process for focusing on customer wants or needs in the design or redesign of a product or service.
  • Sector-specific versions of the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards were developed for such industries as automotive (QS-9000 and ISO/TS 16949), aerospace (AS9000) and telecommunications (TL 9000) and for environmental management (ISO 14000).
  • Quality has moved beyond the manufacturing sector into such areas as service, healthcare, education, and government.
  • The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award has added education and healthcare to its original categories: manufacturing, small business, and service. Many advocates are pressing for the adoption of a "nonprofit organization" category as well.

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