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Denise Robitaille


The Emperor’s New Clothes

Yeah, right

Published: Tuesday, November 7, 2006 - 23:00

Surely you remember the tale of the emperor’s new clothes, a wonderful story filled with multiple quality training opportunities.

There was an emperor who was pompous and vain. One day, two scoundrels came to the palace, presenting themselves as tailors from a distant land. They said they had woven a new cloth so magnificent that it was fit only for a ruler of the emperor’s stature. They flattered him and told him that the cloth could only be seen by those who were fit for the jobs they held. If a person wasn’t suited to their position, they wouldn’t be able to see the fabric.

The Emperor hired the two men on the spot—without consulting any of his court advisers—and commissioned an entire wardrobe. The tailors asked for an advance, so that they might procure the material they needed to weave enough of the fabric to make the Emperor’s new clothes. The emperor gladly opened the royal coffers.

Over the next few weeks, the tailors were seen to be working on the new clothes. More accurately, they were seen waving their fingers in the air and rubbing their palms expansively over empty work benches. Although people saw nothing, they assumed the process of producing the wardrobe was going on.

The tailors even asked the Emperor if he would try the clothes on for a fitting. The ministers all stood aghast as the Emperor stood on the tailor’s stool wearing nothing, but his royal underdrawers. The scoundrels “oohed” and “aahed,” exclaiming over the Emperor’s new clothes. No one dared to disagree for fear that they would lose their jobs.

Finally, the day of the grand procession came, and the emperor allowed the tailors to dress him in his new regal attire. Hundreds of townspeople were lining the streets as he strode out of the palace. Having heard that the Emperor’s new clothes could be seen only by those who were fit for their station, no one said a word. They smiled; they waved.

Then a small child cried out, “ The emperor has no clothes.” Everyone was startled, for how could a child not be worthy of his position?

Then they knew. The ministers realized they had all been duped. They went searching for the tailors, but found them and the royal gold gone.

What if these vendors had been properly evaluated and qualified?
The emperor, not unlike some modern-day CEOs and management-level decision makers, assumed that his position qualified him to assess the two tailors and determine their ability to fulfill his needs. He didn’t evaluate their process capability, research their history in the marketplace, request evidence of their claims, assess the integrity of their supply chain or ask for the most basic of business credentials. He figured that he was a pretty good judge of these things, and this was a good deal.

Organizations with good quality management systems have robust processes for qualifying and selecting vendors. Those processes need to be understood by all individuals who purchase goods and services that have an influence on the organization’s ability to serve the customers reliably and consistently—not just the people in the purchasing department. The integrity of the players in your supply chain has enormous effect on your success.

Would not the deception have been caught earlier if a method of in-process verification had been demanded?
Final inspection is too late to uncover that something is wrong. In-process verifications save money, as they minimize scrap and the costs associated with rework and repair. They also save you the embarrassment of shipping bad product to your customer or missing a delivery date.

How often are we willing to take the word of another without evidence?
Would not an impartial audit of the process or product have revealed that the evidence contradicted what was being said?

In this story, not only was the product not objectively assessed, the specification for clothes was not defined. There was nothing upon which to establish appropriate metrics. Measurability and objectivity aren’t to be minimized. They provide the most reliable foundation for process control and product release. Acceptance by default (i.e., “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”) eventually leads to erosion in control and, ultimately, process/product failures. We need to know what the output should be and define how we will reliably know that it’s been attained.

Would not the Emperor have been spared this humiliating ordeal if his ministers had not been afraid to speak?
I return to Dr. Deming’s maxim: “Drive out fear.” We have to dispel the attitudes and behaviors that foster a climate of apprehension and intimidation. Process owners must be confident that decisions concerning their role in the organization are based on good information, not on unsubstantiated opinion. They need to know that they won’t be punished for bringing problems to light and for suggesting improvements. They should be able to approach audit findings and requests for corrective action as opportunities to shine and make things better for everyone.

So the next time someone asks you to accept a product or a process on their say-so, pause, and remember the emperor and his new clothes.


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.