The Bottom Line on the “Q-Word” and “Performance Excellence”

Authored by: Jerry Goolsby, retired professor from the University of Loyola Business School, consultant, and Governor’s Sterling Award judge.

For many decades, the term “Quality” was used to describe a desired state of outcomes in organizations. Today, in many organizations the term “Quality” is seldom spoken, and employees will often refer to it as the “Q-Word,” when some poor soul utters it.

“Can you believe that Sally said the ‘Q-Word’ in the meeting this morning?”

Why did this happen (nobody would deny that it didn’t—“Quality” was replaced by “Performance Excellence” in Baldrige and Sterling Criteria), and what can we learn from those causes, as we pursue “Performance Excellence” using the Sterling Criteria?

My journey into Quality began forthright in 1987, when the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement had begun its rise in popularity in American manufacturing. Seen as a method of duplicating Japanese successes in applying Quality Control principles that had wiped out entire industries in America, TQM took off as a panacea that would cure any ill in any organization.

As Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the quality guru given credit for the Japanese success story, would say in his 4-day seminars, “Everyone wants instant pudding.” America’s appetite for instant pudding became unquenchable, as every executive at every rank sought to understand this cure-all for every problem.

Because of early successes in applying Dr. Deming’s, Dr. Joseph Juran’s, Dr. Peter Senge’s, Dr. Russell Ackoff’s, and other pioneers’ principles to manufacturing processes, a huge demand emerged for knowledge of these quality principles in a wide range of industries, and just as Dr. Deming admonished, the search for “instant pudding” began almost immediately.

New books appeared just about daily on the topic in the 1990s, and seminars were held to demonstrate the simplicity of concepts underlying quality management. Eventually, everything needed to know about quality could be taught in a two-hour training session with a pamphlet size handout. Dr. Deming’s “14 Points” and “Seven Deadly Diseases” emerged as required knowledge for job interviews. Consulting companies began to repackage their training materials into more simplistic, quality-friendly vernacular.

The richness and elegance of the principles taught by the masters was lost, reduced to punch-lists of empty admonitions.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., arguably the greatest jurist of American history, once said, “The only simplicity for which I would give a straw is that which is on the other side of the complex—not that which never had divined it.” There are two kinds of simplicity—naïve and elegant. TQM was naïve. The masters understood the elegant.

The failures started almost immediately. Unfortunately, “TQM” became almost synonymous with failure, and TQM became synonymous with quality. By the mid-2000s, anyone uttering the word “quality” in manufacturing was assumed to be some sort of fanatic carrying a disease that destroyed organizations.

Recognizing that Quality Control was far more rigorous and statistically-driven than the soft, touchy-feeling versions being packaged in instant pudding, quality professionals began to highjack their beloved mother discipline back from the frauds and charlatans.

The Baldrige Criteria and then Sterling emerged in the late 1980s as a way of making more concrete and rigorous the application of validated Quality Control concepts. Those criteria, which are constantly improved, are a guidepost for those seeking the rigor and elegance of the principles that are proven in application. Their success stands in long-standing testimony of their validity.

While “Q-Word” may have been replaced with “Performance Excellence” to distance the criteria from the frauds and charlatans, the criteria itself has stood the test of time and application in the marketplace. The criteria work.

What can professionals seeking to improve their organizations learn from this history lesson?

  1. Quality principles cannot be mastered by anyone without rigorous learning and mastery.
  2. Naïve Quality has little to no value and almost assures failure.
  3. Elegant Quality is priceless and almost assures success.
  4. Quality is a life-long endeavor for which there is a beginning but no end.
  5. No matter how desirable and alluring instant pudding may be, there is no such thing as lasting success that can emerge from it.
  6. Familiarity is not mastery. Every journey into Quality begins with becoming familiar with a vocabulary, then concepts, then theories, then applications, and then continuous improvement.
  7. Quality is still a virtuous term, no matter who may have sought to destroy its meaning.

In a future blog, I will delineate the meanings of the term “Quality,” so that professionals can understand why knowing the various meanings of the term and communicating precisely in language can be key to success.