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Friday, March 25, 2011

Quality is never an accident...

I am giving a number of presentations in the next little while, so I thought I would look for some quotations that might stimulate some juices.   One that comes up frequently is “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives” ascribed to a William A. Foster.    I suspect that all of you have heard this one at one time or another.

My first thought was it was typical a most feel good quotations in that it contains some grains of relevancy, and is based on good intentions, but is pretty much self indulgent.  I agree about quality never being an accident and the part about taking effort and direction, but the rest is more than a little excessive.   It might be something that Deming might have thought, but never would have written (too pedantic).  It is the sort of thing that folks quote, but rarely if ever actually say.

What interested me was that I have never heard of William A. Foster in the historical trail of quality; so I turned first to Wikipedia to at see what I could find.  What interested me was that the only person with that name cited is a fellow who earned a Medal of Honor for falling on a grenade in the Battle at Okinowa in 1945 when he was 28 years old.  An admirable act to say the least, and perhaps an action that someone with grand thoughts on quality might say, but unlikely considering he worked as a factory laborer prior to his stint in the Marines in WWII.    Perhaps the quote was not so much BY William A Foster, but more ABOUT him.  That being said someone was convinced that this William A Forster wrote the quote and linked his picture to the quotation.

Turns out that I was not the first person ask the question.  One research found an advertisement in the New York Times for an advertising company with the exact quote in 1939.  At that point William A was 21 years old, so that nailed it for me that whoever the writer was, is was not William A.

With a little more searching I found another possible and more probable candidate.  Turns out there was another William Foster, born in 1879 with the middle name Trufant.  Trufant was probably his mother’s French family name.  Born in Boston, educated at Harvard (1901), Professor in English and Argumentation (Debating), PhD from Columbia in Economics (1911), and an author of a series of  books on Money, Profits, and Business, most of which were written in 1928, which was when he was 49, and about 11 years before the aforementioned advertisement.

If I had to chose between William A,  a factory worker and Marine who died valiantly  in a war at a very early age, or William T, a pedantic type guy with a background in English studies and debating and economics,  as the likely author of a grandiose view of quality, I would personally guess the latter.  

But I could be wrong.


  1. The quote does sound indulgent, but makes sense in many ways. Thank you for sharing the research you made.

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  2. I would agree in your post. Quality is never an accident instead quality helps people to become safe and organized.

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  4. I've done some research on this as well, as I doubted that the Medal of Honor recipient was the source. Will A. Foster was of Gabel-Risdon Creamery Co. in Detroit, Mich. He gave a speech titled, “Advantages of a Business Depression to a Sales Organization” in 1930 or 1931 wherein he states, 'Whatever you or the public may consider quality to be, this definition is always a safe guide to follow: "Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives, the cumulative experience of many masters of craftsmanship; and it also marks the quest of an ideal after necessity has been satisfied and usefulness achieved." '

    He was the Secretary of the International Association of Milk Dealers and this was the at the 24th convention of the organization. He became the VP of advertising and sales at Borden Cheese by 1947.

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  6. So there are at least two William A Fosters (one born in 1917 who goes on to be a war hero, and another born earlier and goes on to work in a dairy) and at least one William T Foster with a strong business background. Sounds like the dairy business guy was the right one, and the war guy (who would have been 13 or 14 at the time of the quote) was not the quality insightful guy.

    Many thanks for clarifying the origins of the quote.

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  8. Thanks Fernando
    A thought on Quality and vocabulary or science. Words like Quality are like "gravity" in the sense they are unidirectional. Quality is always a positive.
    Words like "risk" and "accidents" are like "velocity" where they can be both negative and positive depending on the perspective.
    Risk is the impact of uncertainty and in Quality we are concerned about downside risk, but in many situations it is a positive.

    An "accident" to a driver usually is understood as a negative event. To a lawyer is it usually viewed as a positive?

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