“Quality is a Management Decision”

Without question, those are the five most important words I learned in college. While I wish I could remember for sure, I am not totally positive which of my professors was responsible for imparting that piece of wisdom. I think it was Cecilia Falbe, a management professor, so in the absence of other information, she’s going to get the credit. I think it was brought up during a management course in the first year of my two year MBA program. I am certain that I recognized the trueness of the statement at the time. I am equally certain that I did not at the time grasp just how important was the observation, otherwise I’d be positive from whom I had heard those words.

I do remember the context, however. Way back when I was working on my Master’s Degree, China was much more like a third world country than the emerging economic world beater it has become today. Nobody worried about China as an economic competitor. Rather, it was Japan that was the focus of America’s economic angst. Americans could still remember when virtually everything they bought was invented and made domestically, but that had started to change in the 1970s and, by the 1980s and early 1990s, it was clear that while the United States was most likely still the most inventive country, our ability to commercialize and produce products that people wanted to buy had moved east, largely to Japan. America had received an alarming wake-up call.

The automotive industry was the poster child for the concern about quality in American products. My parents liked to buy American-made cars back then, but had purchased a Honda Civic in the mid-1970s as a second car due to its fuel efficiency (the gas shortage of the early 70s still fresh in their minds) and low purchase price. After six years of ownership during which it was driven almost literally into the ground with barely any non-routine maintenance issues, it became to be highly thought of due to its quality. After replacing the Civic with a Plymouth Horizon, a car for which we would place bets on far how it would run before breaking down on any long trip, my parents stopped buying American cars and, other than a Subaru, every one of their cars since the 1980s has been a Honda. Many American-made and excellent. Many, many other American car buyers switched just as my parents had.

So, the MBA class discussion used the auto industry as the context for determining broadly who was to blame for decline of the American automotive industry. All agreed that the decline was precipitated primarily by quality issues and we were attempting to have a “forensic dialogue” in order to properly assign guilt. The quality of the workers and the impact of unionization were both introduced as potential culprits, but at the end of the class, the professor was absolutely steadfast in her proclamation that systemic quality problems were always the failure of management. Always as in always—no exceptions! Her’s was a bold statement that stuck with me. Decades of working, largely in senior management positions, and living have taught me that this observation is 100% spot-on—quality is indeed a management decision. Furthermore, I completely agree that no leniency should be given to management in organizations that achieve poor quality.

Interestingly, the specific issues that drove our quality discussion decades ago would probably not rise to the level of requiring discussion today. Manufacturing quality was the focus under discussion then, but that area has been well-addressed. Nothing is 100%, but manufacturing operations, domestic or otherwise, have become very, very good at producing products with small rates of defect. However, there are still quality problems everywhere as the world has proportionally more services and digital goods than it did several decades ago. The economy's growth sectors have a lot to learn from their manufacturing counterparts.

The overriding point is simple, but profound: Achieving quality is within our grasp if we choose to focus and act upon it. In other words, it is manageable. Additionally, it is within our grasp on both a micro and a macro level as well in many facets of our lives, organizationally and otherwise. But, we need to be able to define the quality we seek, be thoughtful about how we approach it, and diligent in the attention and analysis we give to our pursuits. As Dr. Falbe said decades ago, it is entirely up to us to make quality happen.