Don Knapp
Building a Quality Culture


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By Don Knapp

The quality revolution in U.S. industry is beginning to spread to public and nonprofit organizations but not as rapidly as it should.

This industrial revolution began in the early 1980’s in response to the competition from abroad, mostly Japan, whose products were thought to be of higher quality than those in this country. My Purdue-trained Indianapolis friend John, who rose from quality control inspector in the fifties to vice president for production of a conglomerate, told me the old way to address faulty products was to catch them as they came off the assembly line and replace them.

The new quality gurus started telling industries they had to build-in quality from design-test through production. Many gurus have helped industries change their thinking but few have had the impact of Edwards Deming, who trained 10,000 industrial managers a year up to the time of his death in 1993 at 93. Ironically, it was Deming who taught Japanese manufacturers about quality from the fifties to the seventies when his views were unappreciated in his own country. Japan has awarded the Deming Prize for product quality annually since 1950. U.S. companies such as the Ford Motor Co. started using him as a consultant in the early eighties.

To achieve product quality and customer satisfaction, he said production must be managed, not as a collection of separate parts, but as a system of interacting parts by cross-functional teams with customer input and a goal of continuous improvement. The relationships between the parts and with the whole process are as important as the parts themselves. He believed employees should be empowered to think creatively to solve problems and called customers the most important part of the production line. Supervisors became less authoritative, more facilitating. Organizations became more horizontal.

The Indianapolis Star (Feb. 17, 2002) quoted Jim DeLucca, manager of the General Motors truck plant in Allen County:
“In the old days, a defect would show up and the manager would chew someone out. Now you ask ‘How has the process broken down?’”

The public and nonprofit sectors of the U.S. were slow to consider these ideas, resulting in significant and sometimes unknown consequences: The 9-11 Commission in 2004 identified the lack of teamwork among our intelligence agencies, the Columbia Shuttle Disaster Commission in 2003 cited a similar lack of teamwork, the Institute of Medicine in 1999 estimated that 44,000 to 98,000 hospital deaths annually were caused by accidents, and International Downtown Association President Richard Bradley wrote in 1992 that in most cases downtowns are not managed as total systems.

Today, the Congress and President have implemented the recommendations for intelligence agency coordination under a national director; NASA has been working to implement the Disaster Commission’s safety recommendations and will resume its shuttle schedule; hospitals have established safety or quality programs and are beginning to adopt a systems approach to safety, and some downtowns are establishing public-private partnership organizations, based on an IDA model, to coordinate downtown management.

The Baldrige National Quality Program, established in 1987, began making awards to businesses in 1988 and added educational institutions in 2001 and hospitals in 2002. John Evans, professor of business at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a former Baldrige examiner and board chair, told me that systems thinking was part of the selection criteria and added:
“Organizations that have developed a natural foundation that recognizes linkages are qualitatively different from those organizations that treat the various components of their approach to quality as merely independent building blocks.”

But, many more public and nonprofit organizations and communities need to think outside of their traditional boxes. In 2001, I heard former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut speak to a neighborhood association about “The New Paradigm: Global, Regional and Neighborhood.” He said county boundaries were based on the distance a horse and buggy could travel in a day. “We’re not going to change the boundaries but we’re going to have to learn to cooperate beyond the boundaries that separate us. We live in a boundary-less world.”

While we are on this planet, we should do what we can to leave it, or at least that part we can influence, in better shape than we found it. That means we must move beyond quality to sustainability—balancing economic, environmental and human needs. Systems thinking will be crucial to that task.

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