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William A. Levinson

Risk Management

Why Ethics Must Be Paramount in Quality

“... and never you tell ’em a lie”

Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2022 - 13:03

The U.S. Military Academy’s Honor Code says that “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the USMA’s superintendent, elaborated, “The tenets of honorable living remain immutable, and the outcomes of our leader development system remain the same, to graduate Army officers that live honorably, lead honorably, and demonstrate excellence.”1 This is also a key takeaway from Col. Larry R. Donnithorne’s The West Point Way of Leadership (Currency 2009), which I have read and highly recommend. Ethics are equally important in industry as they are in the military.

A history of honor codes

Codes of ethics and honor are centuries old, and probably evolved from the fact that most people, including the upper social classes, were once illiterate. Many kings and dukes, not to mention knights, considered it beneath them to learn how to read and write, and left this work to clergymen, aka clerics. (“Cleric” is in fact the origin of the word “clerk.”) This, in turn, limited the availability of written and signed contracts, so people had to literally be able to take each other at their words.

This principle carried over into the 19th century, in which the phrase, “You callin’ me a liar?” figures frequently as a prelude to gunplay, at least in Western movies. It was definitely a prelude to gunplay, albeit under highly controlled conditions, in Ireland. The Code Duello says, among other things, “Rule 4. When the lie direct is the first offense, the aggressor must either beg pardon in express terms, exchange two shots previous to apology, or three shots, followed by explanation; or fire on until a severe hit be received by one party or the other.”

Members of the gentry were therefore willing to put their lives at risk in a duel when accused publicly of lying, and the code’s rule 18 explains why: “The seconds load in presence of each other, unless they give their mutual honors they have charged smooth and single, which should be held sufficient.” This meant the duel’s seconds could trust that each of them had loaded no more than one ball, and that the pistol’s barrel wasn’t rifled.

This principle also applied to amicable relationships between opposing military commanders because news could travel no more quickly than by horse or ship. Word of a peace treaty, for example, was unlikely to reach both sides at the same time. The Battle of New Orleans took place after the United States and Britain made peace because the news hadn’t reached either army. Had it done so, Gen. Pakenham would have had to trust Gen. Andrew Jackson’s word, or Jackson Pakenham’s, that the war was really over as opposed to the other side trying to gain an unfair advantage.

A cease-fire so both sides could recover their dead and wounded had to mean exactly that. It was even customary during wartime to accept the paroles of captured enemy officers and allow them to keep their personal weapons, because one could trust them to not participate further in the conflict unless they were exchanged for opposing prisoners or parolees.

Breaches of trust destroy utterly the relationship between organizations and their members, as demonstrated at the Ford Motor Co. during the 1930s. Henry Ford knew that a no-layoff policy is a prerequisite for a lean manufacturing program. Upton Sinclair’s The Flivver King (UAW, 1937) reports what happened when Ford left his company’s management to others. When a new machine enabled one worker to do the work of 20, “the other 19 wouldn’t be fired right away—there appeared to be a rule against that. The foreman would put them at other work, and presently he would start to ‘ride’ them, and the men would know exactly what that meant.” The result was that workers who would have but a few years before rejected union organizers as interlopers who wanted to ruin their very good livelihoods embraced the United Auto Workers on the spot, and rightly so.

When shoddy goods put national security and human lives at risk

The Associated Press recently reported that a metallurgist admitted to falsifying quality test results for half of the steel a foundry produced for the U.S. Navy “because she thought it was ‘stupid’ that the Navy required the tests to be conducted at negative-100 degrees Fahrenheit....”2 The proper course of action would have been to share this view with the customer, who would have doubtlessly explained the reason for it, rather than acting behind the customer’s back and ignoring the requirement.

Other recent incidents of falsification of quality data, and similar purportedly cost-cutting shortcuts, have put people’s lives at risk, destroyed individual and company reputations, and proven far more expensive in the long run than doing the job the right way up front. This underscores the need to elaborate on why it’s important to do it right and not cut corners.

Falsifying quality records is a form of lying as well as stealing because it involves taking the customer’s money for value not delivered. “Shoddy,” a word for inferior coal, apparently proliferated during the American Civil War when profiteers used the cheapest possible materials and cut corners to deliver uniforms that fell apart when worn. “Harper’s Weekly defined shoddy as ‘a villainous compound, the refuse stuff and sweepings of the shop, pounded, rolled, glued, and smoothed to the external form and gloss of cloth,’” and this is what was often provided to Union soldiers who had to pay for their uniforms with an allowance provided for that purpose.3 The Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, might as well have been in charge of the suppliers in question.

China lost the Battle of the Yalu River in 1894 partly because, per Wikipedia, suppliers cut corners by filling shells with inert materials to save money, not even ensuring the shells would fit the guns. Both problems are depicted in the Chinese-language film, The Sino-Japanese War at Sea 1894.

Frank Theiss’ The Voyage of Forgotten Men describes how Russia lost the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 because, among other things, suppliers made shells from cast steel, which was cheaper than the specified rolled steel. Many Russian shells that hit their targets broke up against the armor instead of penetrating it as intended. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (Methuen Drama, 2015 reprint) is meanwhile based on a real scandal during World War II, when substandard products were sold to the Army Air Force.

Gen. William Cohen cited an example in which B-52 bomber crews were directed to cheat in exercises involving Hound Dog attack missiles.4 This was due to an underlying problem with the missiles’ electronic systems, the failure of which would cause the bomber crews to get poor scores. The crews accordingly cheated by using bomb sights instead of the missiles’ guidance systems, which resulted in better scores but covered up a serious problem that could have had devastating consequences during wartime.

Investigators blamed a devastating explosion on the USS Iowa on a purportedly disgruntled sailor, which diverted attention from problems with the ammunition and loading system.5 This could have resulted in yet another explosion inside a gun turret. Similar explosions (due to enemy gunfire rather than accidents) blew up three capital ships with almost all hands at Jutland in 1916, and almost sank two others (SMS Seydlitz at Dogger Bank in 1915, and HMS Lion at Jutland) when they spread or threatened to spread into the magazines below the gun turrets. HMS Lion avoided this fate only because a mortally wounded Royal Marine officer flooded the magazine in time, for which he received a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Germany took corrective action after Dogger Bank, and the United Kingdom took it after Jutland, to reduce or eliminate this risk. But the bottom line is that there are a lot of energetic materials right below a battleship’s gun turrets. This is why one must fix the root cause and not, as alleged, scapegoat (a form of lying) a dead sailor for them.

General Motors paid $2.7 billion in fines and legal settlements in the aftermath of a scandal involving ignition switch malfunctions that caused 124 deaths and 275 injuries.6 GM subsequently changed its policies to make it emphatically clear that employees who discover potential safety problems are to report them rather than cover them up. Takata went bankrupt after a recall of its air bags that involved multiple fatalities and “manipulation” of quality data.7 Kobe Steel “...admitted [in 2017] to supplying products with falsified specifications to about 500 customers, throwing global supply chains into turmoil.”8 This apparently went on for roughly 50 years, and Mitsubishi Materials, Toray Industries, and Ube Industries admitted to similar problems.

All these examples show that pressure to “get the product out the door” should be ignored because product that comes back with warranty and nonconformance claims, or even civil and criminal liability, would have been better off for not even reaching the shipping dock.

Friends don’t let friends buy PRC

Although companies around the world (as demonstrated by Takata, Kobe Steel, and also U.S. firms) have knowingly sold nonconforming products, Japan, the United States, and other responsible countries don’t condone or tolerate it when it’s discovered. But it’s simply business as usual in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and there’s little or no recourse.

One example involves the relabeling of nonconforming or inferior semiconductor devices, some of which have been incorporated into U.S. military products.10 If Jefferson Davis may as well have been in charge of suppliers of shoddy uniforms to the Union Army during the Civil War, does it make sense to have Comrade Xi in charge of suppliers to our Armed Forces today?

The PRC has also sold us tainted heparin that has killed patients, and melamine-containing pet foods that have killed pets. Melamine also went into formula to be fed to human infants. Lead paint was used for children’s toys despite its known dangers. Lead has also been incorporated into PRC-made cosmetics including lipstick.11 Chewy, from which I buy food and other products for my dog, warns, “...that $4 ‘Made-in-China’ [the PRC, not Taiwan] vinyl toy your dog is slobbering on could contain hazardous toxins.”12 The author stipulates that “made in the U.S.” doesn’t guarantee quality, but the risks are lower. She adds that unscrupulous sellers will put American flags on these PRC-made products along with the prominent statement “Designed in the USA” and (presumably) “Made in the PRC” in much smaller print.

The USMA’s Honor Code defines as a lie a partial truth told with intent to deceive, and I, for one, wouldn’t trust a seller that lies to me (per the USMA definition) about a product’s country of origin. Consumers should ask why made-in-America price tags are on PRC-made products and adjust their buying habits accordingly.

Note also that if you import shoddy goods from the PRC that cause deaths or injuries, the plaintiffs’ lawyers are unlikely to be able to find your supplier, which is probably out of U.S. jurisdiction anyway. They will, however, easily find you. Domestic companies have been left holding the bag for liability for dangerous products they imported from the PRC, while the suppliers in the latter, like the profiteers during the American Civil War, walked away with the money.13

Product audits and incoming inspections as a deterrent

If half of the steel delivered to the U.S. Navy wasn’t tested properly, examples of nonconforming work, or at least incorrect test results, should have been abundant. If the PRC is putting melamine into pet food and infant formula, or lead into cosmetics, this is quite likely to affect a substantial amount of product. The problems with shoddy blue uniforms for Civil War soldiers should have been obvious upon delivery, and so on.

Even though incoming inspection and similar activities don't add value—which is why customers prefer to rely on suppliers’ quality systems—this is a strong argument for second-party (by the customer) or third-party (by independent testing laboratories) product audits or sampling inspections. Customers can test products independently and compare the results against, for example, the suppliers’ certificates of analysis or product specifications. If the tests are performed under identical conditions, and ASTM and other standards are designed to make this possible, then the customer and supplier should get essentially identical results. Steel tested at –100°F is likely to return results that differ from tests at room temperature. If the customer gets discrepant or nonconforming results, this should be an immediate warning flag that the supplier has a calibration problem, or the supplier is intentionally cutting corners. If melamine shows up in food products, or lead in cosmetics or children’s toys, that should be the end of the line for that supplier, period.

Conclusion: Don’t tolerate those who do

Recall that the USMA Honor Code says, “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Some people interpret the latter as a requirement for cadets to snitch on one another, which would certainly undermine morale and cohesion. In practice, however, the opportunity to “tolerate those who do” arises almost universally when those who do try to make you a party to their actions. These could include peers or superiors who ask you to sign off on quality tests that have not been performed, or to “modify” slightly out of specification test results to get product out the door. The proper course of action in the latter case is to ask the customer if it will accept the parts as they are, possibly at a discount, as opposed to misrepresenting their fitness for use. In the meantime, the policy should be “one strike and you’re out” for a supplier that intentionally delivers nonconforming work.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Norman and Saxon” offers a perfect description of how to interact with stakeholders to earn and keep their respect and trust:

“Say ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘ours’ when you’re talking, instead of ‘you fellows’ and ‘I.’

Don’t ride over seeds; keep your temper; and never you tell ‘em a lie!”

1. Vanden Brook, Tom. “Eight cadets at West Point expelled for cheating, over 50 set back a year.” USA Today, April 16, 2021.
2. Associated Press. “Metallurgist admits faking steel strength test results for Navy subs.” Nov. 10, 2021.
3. Soodalter, Ron. “The Age of Shoddy.” HistoryNet.
4. Cohen, William A. The Stuff of Heroes: The Eight Universal Laws of Leadership. Longstreet, 1998, pp. 27–30.
5. Martz, Larry. “A Scapegoat on the Iowa?” Newsweek, vol. 115, June 4, 1990, pp. 53–54.
6. Daalder, Marc. “GM fulfills ignition switch scandal terms, feds dismiss case.” Detroit Free Press, Sept. 20, 2018.
7. Jones, Charisse, and Bomey, Nathan. “Timeline: How Takata’s air-bag scandal erupted.” USA Today, June 25, 2017.
8. Obayashi, Yuka. “Kobe Steel admits data fraud went on nearly five decades, CEO to quit.” Reuters, Mar. 5, 2018.
9. Buncombe, Andrew. “U.S. and China in war of words as Beijing threatens to halt supply of medicine amid coronavirus crisis.” The Independent, March 13, 2020.
10. Nash-Hoff, Michele. “Senate Report Reveals Extent of Chinese Counterfeit Parts in Defense Industry.Industry Week, May 31, 2012.
11. Stewart, Emily. “China Has a History of Selling Dangerous Products to U.S. Consumers.” The Street, March 3, 2015.
12. Schade, Victoria. 6 Dog Toy Dangers You Should Know.” Chewy Editorial, Oct. 11, 2016.
13. Owens, Wilbur, and Mulherin, Joseph. “The Chinese Manufacture Everything and You Cannot Sue Them!” Owens & Mulherin Injury Lawyers.


About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., FASQ, CQE, CMQOE, is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford’s Universal Code for World-Class Success (Productivity Press, 2013).



Amen to Bill Levinson's piece!  And it pays for supervisors to have a good listening reputation, otherwise employees and others will not say what they know.

An article on ethics is always timely

Nice to see an article on ethics in the quality realm.  Most of the folks who work in this field will at some time be put in a situation where their ethical boundries will be tested.  It can be very hard, but my advice is to do what you know is right.  If you sell-out once, it is likely you will again and again.  Stand firm.