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Denise Robitaille


Defined by Negation

Quality management principles are noticeably lacking in election campaigns

Published: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 - 05:30

Election time is once again upon us. And, like a bumper crop of kudzu run amok, campaign ads have besieged local broadcasts with the tenacity of an unrelenting pestilence. My mailbox is equally stuffed with innuendo-laden campaign fliers. A horrific waste of paper.

The malicious tone of the ads is particularly troublesome. Not only are they offensive and confrontational, they’re also devoid of meaningful content. I might pay more attention to the political commercials if they actually provided information that would help me to decide how I will cast my ballot. But they don’t. They’re nothing more than vitriolic tirades that wouldn’t be tolerated in any legitimate business environment.

What is especially disconcerting is that the rampant use of negative media spots has crept unchallenged into accepted campaign practices. There has been no outcry from the citizenry, no demand that individuals who aspire to represent us in the halls of Congress or at the helm of the gubernatorial branch of governance conduct themselves with some modicum of restraint—or rein in the independent organizations who purport to advocate on their behalf.

Candidates are described in contrast to their opponents’ perceived shortcomings. In short, they are defined by negation. There’s little, if any, discussion of a candidate’s own history or statements of his or her intentions, goals, or plans. While there are excessive sound bites about the opponent’s supposed transgressions, failures, and sins of omission, the actual character and substance of the candidate remains largely cloaked in vaguely worded hyperbole.

The expectation that voters should make decisions based on anti-statements is not only insulting but nonproductive. The only scenario in which this form of campaigning makes any sense is if the stated purpose of the election process is to create a forum for contestants, using intimidation and deceit, to vie for the prize of personal glory through the attainment of a governmental position.

I’ve pondered how these practices compare with accepted quality management system fundamentals. In defining products and processes, we identify the requirements and specifications. We say what should be. We specify the characteristics and attributes of the product: color, dimensions, weight, durability, heat tolerance, amperage. For processes, we plan how activities will be conducted, what resources will be required, and what the anticipated outcome will be. We establish the sequence of steps. We would not think to write a product description or a process map in terms of what should not be. “The operator should not make the mistake of failing to checking the oil levels—as was the case with his predecessor.” “Errors in transferring information should not be made.” “Our competitor’s cabinets have scratches on them. Ours won’t.” “Choose our product because it’s not our competitors’ product.” “The scope of our quality management system is not to make the following mistakes….” The concept of negative definition would be ludicrous in any organization.

ISO 9000:2005—“Quality management systems—Fundamentals and vocabulary” articulates eight quality management principles (QMP). A few of these are particularly relevant to this conversation.

First on the list is customer focus. It states: “Organizations depend on their customers and therefore should understand current and future customer needs, should meet customer requirements and strive to exceed customer expectations.”  The current campaign practices don’t begin to reflect what the voters need and expect. We need solid information presented in an intelligible format. There are some who would say that the periodic debates should fulfill this requirement. I tuned into one debate recently and sat appalled as each candidate, when asked a question, spent the first minute of their response time talking about their opponents’ failings: “Unlike my opponent… blah, blah, blah….”

The second relevant QMP is leadership. ISO 9000:2005 states: “Leaders establish unity of purpose and direction of the organization. They should create and maintain the internal environment in which people can become fully involved in achieving the organization’s objectives.” The only unity of purpose that shines through during an election year is the perpetuation of the political party. And since that’s the apparent purpose, the only ones involved are those with a vested interest in the perpetuation of the party.

Then there’s “Factual approach to decision making. Effective decisions are based on the analysis of data and information.” The statements made and the statistics cited have little, if any, basis in actual fact. For example, in my state, as in many others, property taxes are determined and levied by the local municipalities. And yet, one ad spot screams that the current governor raised property taxes several times during his tenure. The statement is blatantly false and misleading. In order for voters to be informed, they must, therefore, assume that any and all statements are suspect and need to be thoroughly researched. This, in turn, suggests that the average candidate is hoping for an unenlightened or complacent citizenry that will not bother to become properly informed. However, the challenges to becoming better informed would be greatly ameliorated if the candidates didn’t treat the election like an elaborate game of “Where’s Waldo” in which they dare voters to navigate an impossibly complex tableau of deception, innuendo, invective, and obfuscation in order to uncover the truth.

Finally, there’s mutually beneficial supplier relations. And this, in practice, is perhaps the most egregious misapplication of a principle whose purpose is to ensure that the customer is consistently served. The QMP states: “An organization and its suppliers are interdependent and a mutually beneficial relationship enhances the ability of both to create value.” Campaigns receive unendorsed boosts for their candidates in the form of ads that originate from third parties. This could be a TV commercial from a private-interest group or an organization with thinly veiled ties to a political party. The candidates enjoy the benefits of these ads (when they’re effective), but can disassociate themselves from accountability for the content. It would be comparable to an organization outsourcing a process and then conceding that it had not qualified the source, nor authorized the “product,” and that it eschewed any responsibility for control of the process. The organization and the candidate will enjoy the mutual benefits of election and perpetuation of the party (or support for the private interest). But the value does not flow down to the citizenry. In short, the customer is not served. To the contrary, the customer is particularly disenfranchised by a process that should increase clarity but in actuality obscures facts and obstructs good decision making.

One final word: I personally don’t want anyone representing me or my interests who believes that deceit, venomous attacks, and unscrupulous disavowals are acceptable campaign practices. Character counts. Integrity is a great predictor of future performance. Let us all require our candidates to adhere to a higher standard. Let us introduce them to the QMPs.


About The Author

Denise Robitaille’s picture

Denise Robitaille

Denise Robitaille is the author of thirteen books, including: ISO 9001:2015 Handbook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses.

She is chair of PC302, the project committee responsible for the revision to ISO 19011, an active member of USTAG to ISO/TC 176 and technical expert on the working group that developed the current version of ISO 9004:2018. She has participated internationally in standards development for over 15 years. She is a globally recognized speaker and trainer. Denise is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and an Exemplar Global certified lead assessor and an ASQ certified quality auditor.

As principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped many companies achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. She has conducted training courses for thousands of individuals on such topics as auditing, corrective action, document control, root cause analysis, and implementing ISO 9001. Among Denise’s books are: 9 Keys to Successful Audits, The (Almost) Painless ISO 9001:2015 Transition and The Corrective Action Handbook. She is a frequent contributor to several quality periodicals.



While everyone seems to decry the negative campaigning, there is a very good reason it contunues: IT WORKS!!!! If it didn't work, the candidates wouldn't be doing it. People are motivated by consequences. Politicians are no different. WE, the voters, are ultimately the ones to blame for the mess in Washington. We re-elect (the consequences the politicians are looking for) the very people we have little confidence in. We reward public figures for BAD BEHAVIOR. Therefore, they keep doing it. Just look at Charlie Sheen, Tiger Woods, "Snookie", Paris Hilton, Marion Barry, Joy Behar, etc., ad nauseum.

Defined by Negation

Excellent article. Is there any way we can get the politicians from both sides to sit down & go through the "5 Whys" or any problem-solving method using real data to determine the true root causes of our current problems? Perhaps that's wishfull thinking.

That was fun

I enjoyed your article Denise!

If only...

I truly enjoyed Denise's application of the QMPs to the electoral process in play this year. The 'company' is pushing out 'product' without any significant input from its 'customers' -- forget about actually addressing the customer's needs. She makes a wise argument for applying quality principles to the manner in which people are elected to office.
Just as in the consumer product marketplace, the political marketplace has opportunities to provide value added products in many different forms - Lexus & BMW are both value adding luxuries in different forms. Instead, as Denise points out in her piece, the focus is not on how a candidate adds value but on how their opponent takes value away -- defined by negation & perpetuating an atmosphere of fear. An utterly ridiculous, but for an incomprehensible reason, a long lasting and even thriving mode of conducting business.
The citizens never have an opportunity to compare the value propositions of the product they are being asked to choose between. Sadly, we all lose the opportunity to leap ahead of the rest of the world & keep them in the game instead of blowing them out!