H. James Harrington  |  10/03/2008

Back to the Future

My predictions about quality in the 21st century have been slow to mature.

Given all the campaigning by Barack Obama and John McCain, including the many promises they’re making that I believe won’t be kept, I recall my own predictions and visionary assurances a decade ago concerning the quality profession in the 21st century. When I was asked during the mid-1990s, “How do you see the quality profession changing to meet the needs of the 21st century?”, this is how I responded:

“The quality assurance function will give way to a new, comprehensive, value-added function that will be called “systems assurance.” This new function will provide a second-party review of how well the systems within the total organization are functioning and will evaluate their effect on all of the organization’s stakeholders, not just its external customers. The systems assurance function will audit product, quality management, environmental management, security management, financial management, strategic management, safety management, customer acquisition, and other general management systems. This new function will focus more on the marketing and sales systems than on production systems because marketing and sales will have a greater effect on customer satisfaction than production. It will be responsible for auditing compliance to the present-defined systems and identifying system- improvement opportunities that will increase the total organization’s performance as viewed by all its stakeholders.

“The size of the quality function will be greatly reduced because all managers will become quality managers. Those quality professionals who will remain will be much more technically capable of understanding business operations and much less focused on controlling production systems. The quality professional of the 21st century won’t focus on activities but rather on processes and how they combine into critical operating systems that control and manage the total organization.

“The systems assurance function will design its activities to help management make optimum decisions, not just good decisions. Today, 5 percent of the decisions made in the board room are bad decisions, and 95 percent of the decisions are good quality decisions. The downside to that is that only 10 percent of the good decisions are optimum decisions when reviewed 12 months later. In the 21st century, the market will go to organizations that make the highest percentage of optimum decisions the first time. Truly, the systems assurance function will move out of the problem-solving role, turning that over to the line departments, and focus more than 90 percent of its effort on error prevention.”

We can all agree that my prediction hasn’t come true. But to justify my remarks, we’ve experienced only 8 percent of the 21st century. Has my vision of the quality profession changed, now 13 years later? No, not really. I still see the need for a systems assurance organization, although the trend is to put the systems assurance activities for quality, the environment, safety, and health under a single manager. I’ve tried to put financial auditing also under the same manager, but financial groups have fought me tooth and nail. They demand that the internal financial auditor should report to the CEO and no one else, but given time, these barriers will also be broken down.

The quality manual is changing from a stand-alone document to a part of the organization’s operating manual. This is hard for some ISO 9001 certification bodies to accept, but they’re just behind the times. Good quality practices should be part of mainstream activities rather than stand-alone functions that are practiced only when the external auditor is scheduled to arrive. An external auditor must decide what part of the operating manual he or she should audit. If the entire manual is audited, the auditor must delve into all of finance, marketing and sales, human resources, and service systems, a task he or she has probably never been trained to understand. I’ve tried to document the procedures that make up the quality systems, but when auditors see the wealth of information, they’re drawn into evaluating things that they would normally ignore. For this reason, each organization needs a systems assurance group that extends far beyond normal quality activities.

Unfortunately, the quality professional hasn’t moved into the prevention mode I envisioned. In fact, the financial success of Six Sigma has driven quality professionals even deeper into reaction mode and away from prevention practices. However, I still hold to the belief that farther down the road, problem-solving approaches will lose favor and be replaced with prevention approaches.

To summarize, I believe that my predictions aren’t out of line with what’s going to happen as our quality systems mature. It will take more time to change our approaches before the prediction will become reality. Just call me Nostradamus.


About The Author

H. James Harrington’s picture

H. James Harrington

H. James Harrington is CEO of Harrington Management Systems, which specializes in total quality management (TQM), Six Sigma, lean, strategic planning, business process improvement, design of experiments, executive management mentoring, preparing complete operating manuals, organizational change management, ISO 9000, ISO 14000, and TRIZ. Harrington is a prolific author, having written hundreds of technical reports, magazine articles, and more than 35 books. He has more than 55 years of experience as a quality professional. Harrington is a past president of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the International Academy for Quality (IAQ).