Thursday, August 25, 2011

Learning the Past or Learning from the Past?

Paul Borawski is the CEO of the American Society for Quality.  He writes a blog “A view from the Q” which can be found through the ASQ website (  In his offering from August 16th, he asked an interesting question.

The philosophy of modern quality reaches back to the late 1930s and 1940s. That’s not so long ago, but it might be ancient history. I’ve been in three large quality gatherings in the past year where the question was asked, “How many of you have heard of W. Edwards Deming?” I was shocked and saddened when less than a third of the hands went up. “How about Joseph M. Juran?” Fewer hands. It occurs to me that something isn’t right about that. Am I being nostalgic, or does the quality community bear some responsibility for making sure its philosophic foundations are not lost to history?

It is an interesting comment that reflects as much on the author as it does on his observations. 

My guess is that Paul and I are about the same age, which is one very vulnerable to nostalgia.  In my day, things were better, or tougher.  My teachers were wiser, or more indifferent.   I had to walk 20 miles to school in the snow without boots carrying my lunch box in one hand and fighting off wolves with the other.   And in my day we know our history and were proud of it.  And don’t let me ever get started on those university students of today.

All good stuff, but it is not only fluff, it is almost always wrong.  We were just as illiterate about our history as kids are today.  Probably worse.  Back in our day all we had was the Encyclopaedia Britannica which was usually at least 10 years old.  And maybe a stack of Life magazines in the garage.  Today the kids have Google and Wikipedia and virtual instant access to the past, or at least the past as we recorded it.  I would venture that the 35 year olders are far more knowledgeable about things that occurred 40 year ago, than were we.  And more importantly, if they want to find out about that stuff they can Google it in a heartbeat.

While some of our generation may know about Frederick Taylor, how many ever knew who Levey and Jennings or Dodge and Romig were, even though some of us still use their charts and tables today. 

There is value in knowing the names within in our historical roots; Shewhart, Deming, Juran, Crosby, but more as an aid to knowing about planning and doing and studying and acting.  If the names get lost in time or get mixed up with certain mythologies that is OK as long as their messages remain.  I know we all want to be remembered, but can we agree that the real issue is appreciating the concepts for monitoring for error, implementing corrective actions, and applying all this to create an continuum of Quality improvement.

By the way, I have been teaching an on-line course in Laboratory Quality Management through the University of British Columbia for 10 years and still include The Deming Management Method by Mary Walton and Quality Without Tears by Phillip Crosby on the required reading list.

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