Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Quality Conversion and ZAMM

Bill, and Brooks Carder set out an interesting and challenging thesis that Qualitologists have gone through some form of epiphany and conversion that “we know in our hearts we can help make this world work better.”   As I read this I was intrigued, but with a nagging feeling that this was not the first time I had heard of Quality expressed in near-religious terms.

Back in the seventies, when I was barely out of medical school, and certainly not anywhere near the quality path, I read Robert Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  (affectionately referred to as ZAMM).  Pirsig was not so much a novelist; he was much more focused in Eastern philosophy with a passion for motorcycles to sooth a troubled spirit (a sort of Steve McQueen character).

ZAMM was not a light read, but was very much a book of the times.  Reading ZAMM was a way of signalling to yourself and others that you were “cool” and “in” and “hip”.  Talking about ZAMM was a great way to find women (or so we thought). 

The book tells the story of a father and son as they travel across America on a motorcycle, but is more about the human internal and external condition.  A key theme that ran through the book was his notion of Quality and its importance in all of life’s decisions.   

One gets the sense that many people of my generation who moved towards a career in Quality were influenced by Pirsig and ZAMM.  For example when Persig writes of Quality in it greater context it is always capitalized.  When discussed in a more prosaic smaller sense, it is in lower case.  I thought this was a style of my own invention.  Probably not.

Further in support, in the commentary of Brooks Calder that Bill includes in his entry, he says: “After all, … quality is responsible for many of the things that make life better.”  And his proposal for a new ASQ mission statement includes:  “To improve the function and value of goods and services worldwide, and to facilitate the development of new products and services that improve the quality of life.”
Parallel that with Pirsig who wrote:  “A person who connects with Quality … is filled with gumption, or enthusiasm, which literally means filled with God”.  A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around and stewing about things.  He is at the front of the train of his own awareness and watching to see what is up the track” and further, and perhaps more importantly,  “when a person loses sight of Quality they lose enthusiasm for what they are doing”.   

Not to get too far down the road or too much off the deep end, Pirsig’s philosophical view of quality had a sense dualism: that it was perhaps, in part subjective, a part of the mind, and at the same time was in part, objective, a part of the material world.  Or it was neither and was a third entity and independent of both.

To Pirsig, Quality was more a sense of excellence and spirit.  It would be hard to fit into prosaic terms.  “Quality is another name for truth, but is something indefinable …“The moment you define it, the meaning of it changes.  But while definition remains aloof, it inexplicably makes things brilliant.   

In 1979 Philip Crosby (5 years after ZAMM) published his “4 Absolutes” of quality including  Quality is defined as conformance to requirements, not as 'goodness' or 'elegance  Certainly not as ethereal as Persig would have stated it, it is none-the-less  elegant in its own way.  I wonder if Crosby had been a ZAMM reader and if his definition of Quality was in some way a pragmatic response to a philosophical dilemma .

My point of writing about Pirsig and ZAMM is to indicate that the notion of a Quality conversion is not new.  Rather than being viewed as overly ambitious, I  see it as being the true core of what we are.  I encourage those of you of a more recent generation to pick up a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and contemplate your greater self.

As a side note, Brooks uses the term “a bunch of nerd engineers” to describe the quality community.  Perhaps a bit too self-diminishing.  Pirsig saw Quality a little differently.  Said Pirsig’s in his immediate post-sixties era phraseology “When you subtract Quality, you get squareness.   Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness.  We are not the nerds, indeed we are the hip.

And as a final note, Robert Pirsig, is 84 years old.  He was interviewed by the BBC in 2012 ( It is well worth watching.  Should  ASQ recognize him for his contributions to the study and recognition of Quality.


  1. A very thought provoking blog. Thank you. After reading this I went straight to the YouTube link which stimulated me even more. You have put Persig's ZAMM on my reading list for 2015.

    I found what you said about Persig couching his description of quality in post-Sixties era phraseology of "squareness" very interesting. (Actually, that usage of square already existed in the late fifties as evidenced in "Jailhouse Rock".) Don't you think that Deming's approach to a concept of 'quality' is even closer than Crosby's?

    Quality is defined as conformance to requirements, not as 'goodness' or 'elegance'.
    - Philip Crosby, 1979

    From the point of view of the worker, Quality is pride in workmanship.
    From the point of view of the user, Quality is anything that enhances satisfaction.
    - W. Edwards Deming in "Dr. Deming. The American Who Taught the Japanese About Quality" by Rafael Aguayo.

    1. Thanks Terry
      You raise a valid point (to a point).

      I was struck by the close temporal association between Pirsig's comment that Quality could not be defined, and Crosby's definition.

      Personally I consider Crosby's use of requirement as broader than a manufacturer's term or specification. For example, Steve Jobs was able to read his audience well in terms of what they wanted, demanded, required of Apple projects. In that sense requirements were not specifications, but rather included concepts such as visually pleasing, modern, exciting. Not specifications, but requirements none-the-less. This would also fit the phrase referenced to Deming.

      I came across "Quality is anything that enhances satisfaction" before, and have tried to source it out. Of interest it is not included in Deming's 14 points, and it has also been sourced to both Juran and also Taguchi.

      I don't doubt that Deming, who was an excellent speaker and teacher believed in Quality and Customer Satisfaction, but I am not convinced he was the prime source (Just as he was not the prime source of the term "Plan-Do-Check-Act").

      So, since I don't know where or when the "satisfaction" comment (one that I have always respected) originated I have always gone back to Crosby and his 4 Absolutes, as published in Quality without Tears.

      If you can point me to the a dated reference to the Deming reference, I would appreciate it.



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