Stepping Off the Cliff of Success

Quality has become invisible. Because it’s everywhere.

Taran March @ Quality Digest

November 24, 2021

In publishing, anniversary issues sit in the ambiguous space between news and marketing. News because, at 40 years and counting, it’s not every magazine that makes it to middle age in these times. Marketing because it’s all a bit brash, like asking for presents on your birthday.

However, it’s worth noting that Quality Digest isn’t alone in reaching this milestone. During the past 40 years, quality as an industry has also grown up, and that’s definitely worth writing about.

Every issue of QD, from that first, digest-sized publication—real paper, print, and binding—to our current website and electronic daily delivery, are archived. So for this 40th-anniversary issue (the first of two), we QDers meandered to the storeroom, blew dust off the slumbering boxes of old issues, and took a look. Here’s what I saw.

Like anyone engaged in this sort of thing, my first thought was where did those 40 years go? I started pondering how many words those years represented. Luckily, my math skills didn't get me too far down that road before vertigo set in. Suffice to say the sum is a lot of words. When you spend your working days churning out words, always more words, you can easily lose track of both the volume and the feel of the ones that have come and gone. So I was pleasantly surprised to realize those past issues offered so much professional, creative, and useful information. It was both validating and a little fatiguing.

Once that was out of the way, though, I was struck by how our quality coverage had evolved from overt to implied. By the time we hit Y2K (remember the frisson of hysteria surrounding that?), QD’s ratio of how-to and what-is articles had dropped, while our coverage of why is quality and what-if-we-did-this had grown.

Early issues of Quality Digest included tutorials on FMEA and descriptions of the Red Bead experiment. There were technical articles explaining aerospace standards, and editorials fulminating about lackluster management. And there were flavor-of-the-month methodologies, many I’d forgotten, accompanied by old-school ads cleverly capitalizing on the fear of missing out and exhorting people to call 800 numbers today.

Those issues were, essentially, reflecting events within the quality industry in as close to real time as a print magazine could. Considered retrospectively, they presented a collapsed timeline, neatly boxed and bringing point A to point Z without the need for intervening time or space.

Their condensed story went something like this: In the 1960s, modern quality strolled into the United States like an ex-pat dressed in a Japanese suit. It was soon followed by bona fide sensei shedding terms like gembutsu and poka-yoke. Industry as a whole paused in the middle of its pinochle game, put down its coffee mug, and sat up. This quality stuff made sense, a brilliant kind of common sense scaled up to tackle production and a host of pesky, unproductive assumptions.

As the light bulb blinked on across the country, manufacturers took up the challenge, and quality professionals found themselves lured with corner offices and designated parking spaces if they would roll up their sleeves and sort things out. Later, home-grown gurus began to appear, first as a trickle then as a flood, to explain it all. “Guru” was an accepted term for them, for awhile, an apparent nod to when dropouts wandered San Francisco or trekked off to India and forgot to come back. Each guru had a firm grip on some part of the quality process—SPC, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, you name it—and for awhile the noise of an industry in the making was deafening. And exhilarating.

Quality gurus, aka white guys in suits

Then two separate developments converged to pull quality toward its future and closer to invisibility: lean and the silicon chip. Both were ideas whose time not only had come but whose creative possibilities hovered as promisingly as carbon atoms.

Lean arrived like royalty from the kingdom of Toyota. With its Toyota Production System (TPS), the automaker was showing the world how it was done, “it” being quality, productivity, respect for resources, customer satisfaction.

Of course by this time many of these concepts were already in play by manufacturers and shop-floor managers. But lean, a practical and elegant interpretation of TPS, synthesized them into a sort of universal template. Suddenly it was everywhere. People spent the day scrutinizing processes from within a chalk circle, and left work (in their Toyotas) thinking about waste and andon cords and just-in-time.

And the silicon chip? That world-changing, ever-shrinking bit of elemental magic? It enabled our age of technology, which is like saying it made air breathable. It supported the software that turned handwritten SPC charts and spreadsheets into instantly visible, companywide action items. It transformed slide rules and calipers into near-sentient metrology equipment. And it brought customers into board rooms and R&D units, up close and personal. It turned customers into real people, in real time.

It also gave many brick-and-mortar, print-based publications their pink-slip dinosaur notice: Innovate or die. Actually, lean brought much the same message to a wider audience, but in a politer, more helpful format.

At QD, the lean-electronic imperative manifested in fewer employees, more diverse skill sets, and a dicey period of coaxing advertisers away from sober print and into the carnival atmosphere of online newsletters, blogs, banner images, GIFs, and webinars. Many of our print columnists retired. Consultants were elbowed aside by brand pundits. PowerPoint presentations slid into obscurity as online video formats flourished.

Whew. Talk about reaping the whirlwind. That industry exhilaration of the early quality years took on the distinct sound of marathoners laboring up a painful learning curve. Along with the hideous keen of the not-so-lucky diminishing into the abyss.

While many quality gurus turned up daisies in forgotten fields of expertise, software married hardware and spawned juggernauts of quality control: Coordinate measuring machines. Laser scanners. Smart sensors. Increasingly, manufacturers were urged to let the machines do the measuring, the math, the minding. People, meanwhile, had “more important” tasks, ones more suited to the way minds operate—like looking at big pictures, taking action after being goaded by real-time data, and figuring out how to get along in teams.

Oh no! Not another learning curve! It’s like a form of empty-nest syndrome: All those quality concepts grew up, found their places in automated production lines and document-control apps. Quality apparently no longer needed human shepherds and advocates to survive. It had become part of every process at every level of production, ubiquitous and invisible.

That’s a good thing... right?

Which brings us to this breakneck day and age. You quality champions who innovated the industry to its current glittering, state-of-the-art pinnacle also made yourselves, if not redundant, at least able to lift your noses from the collective grindstone. The positive spin there is that you have free time now to... what? Hit the gym? Learn to code?

I know, I know. Free time has disappeared like the gurus and calipers and print issues of Quality Digest. But before addressing the many concerns that so hate a vacuum they’re trampling each other to grab your attention, you should stop for a moment and realize: Quality succeeded. You did all that.

About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is a retired editor for Quality Digest. A 35-year veteran of publishing, she has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities.