Monday, March 24, 2014

What Everybody Ought to Know About Quality Improvement

Quality Improvement is a term that has existed in the modern since the late 19th century. However the history of ensuring quality products extends much farther into history.

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages most products were created by skilled craftsman. Each master would inspect the work of his apprentices to ensure that they met his high standard. When the standard was met or exceeded the master would place his mark on the product. If the standard was not met, the product was likely destroyed.

An excellent example of this occurs in the movie The Red Violin. In the initial scenes of the film, you see a master violin maker inspecting the various violins under construction. He comes to one apprentice, and holding out the violin, says, "This violin would be excellent for a priest or school, but it will never be good enough for a master musician" (very loosely paraphrased). The master then proceeds to bang the violin on the work table until it is smashed into small pieces.

Industrial Age

As the manufacturing of products moved out of small one-person shops and into factories, audit units were formed that would evaluate works in progress as well as inspect completed good prior to delivery. Over time, in the United States, more emphasis was placed on the processes used during the manufacturing process. In the early 20th, statisticians began to apply measurements to quality in order to determine what type of variation was acceptable.

World War II Weapons Production 

During World War II, manufacturing companies creating weapons and ammunition realized that they needed to have a system in order that various components, manufactured by different plants, would fit together. Because of the massive output of military goods, the armed forces began sampling production rather than inspecting every single item. Tables of sampling data were created that shared with manufacturers, who could compare their outputs with the measurement data.


During World War II the Japanese industrial capability was decimated. Many factories were bombed multiple times, and both atomic detonations occurred in industrial zones.

After the war, Japan rebuilt its infrastructure and enlisted the help of quality consultants. As a result, Japanese products typically had a better quality that goods manufactured in the United States. Japanese auto imports, such as Honda, Nissan, and Toyota, outsold U.S.-made cars. During the 1970s there was a General Motors plant so disorganized that cars would be completed without steering wheels or mismatched paint (Toyota and GM eventually collaborated and significantly improved the quality).


One of the consultants, who worked with the U.S. government prior to World War II and with Japan after, was W. Edwards Deming. A majority of quality theory - even today - is derived from his work. He developed 14 points for management and also introduced the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle. In the PDCA cycle, plans (Plan) for improvement are tested (Do) and then assessed (Check). If the plans appear to be effective, the plans are implemented (Act).


Throughout manufacturing, transportation, business, and healthcare, quality is evaluated continually. Perhaps the two most well-known quality paradigms today are Six Sigma and Lean (both are also frequently combined into Lean Six Sigma). Six Sigma comes directly from the manufacturing world and establishes a goal of no more than 3.4 defects per million items produced. In order to achieve that high standard, a variety of analysis and rework must be completed. Lean, also from the manufacturing world, is a process to identify, control, and eliminate waste.

Personal Quality Improvement 

Over the course of several posts, I will be sharing how to take many of the basic concepts of quality improvement - as they are applied in organizations - and utilize them in your personal life, just for you, an individual. Techniques that will be reviewed include brainstorming, taking baseline measurements, flowmapping personal processes, deciding on a course of action, and evaluating outcomes of actions taken.

If you found this post helpful, I would greatly appreciate it if you commented below and shared on Facebook.  Douglas G Pratt.

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