The Quality We Ask For and the Quality That We Get

I had intended to write a commentary about the countdown to the end of President Obama’s first 100 days in office but the thoughts are not coming together for such a missive. However, I do want to make a note that it seems like everyone, on the outsides of both aisles, are setting up this administration to fail.

It isn’t just that certain individuals on the right have already prejudged the efforts and are openly rooting for President Obama to fail; there are those on the left who are expecting something which may or may not be possible in one hundred days. Of course, those on the right who are calling for the failure of this administration would be calling for the failure of any administration, right/left, red/blue, up/down, if that particular administration did not meet their standards.

Rather, what prompts me to write my comments today is the apparent lack of quality in our lives and in the standards that we set for ourselves and this country. After all, when you hear representatives of AIG say that they were legally obligated to pay bonuses, be they for performance or retention, and you look at the meaning of bonuses, you have to wonder exactly what type of standards are being applied.

As I understand it, a bonus is paid for exemplary work. And you might want to pay a retention bonus if other companies are seeking to hire a particular individual. But why would you pay any type of bonus for exemplary work when the work in question causes the company to fail and why would you want to retain someone whose efforts cause the company to fail? If any company wanted to pay the AIG employees retention bonuses, it would be the competitors, not AIG!

But the AIG idea of quality control and reward for work is not that far out of line with the thinking of the American people. We do not demand excellence and while we may expect quality, we willingly settle for second best because we are not willing to pay the price for quality. The standards that we accept are not the standards that we demand.

Several years ago, I took a sermon entitled “Quest for Quality.” It was, in part, about a quality control seminar that I attended and how the topic of total quality management could be applied to church management. As I noted in my blog, “To Search For Excellence”, about halfway through the seminar I had the disturbing sense of “déjà vu all over again”. You see, my father was an industrial engineer and he had worked with statistical quality control all his professional life. In the end, as I noted, I never got an idea of how one applies statistical quality control to the management of a church nor how one can use TQM to help a church grow in this day and age.

And today, as I look at the idea of quality control in our lives and our demands for quality, I wonder if we haven’t forgotten the lessons of the past. We invented statistical quality control and yet we do not use it. And while initial Japanese goods were cheap and poorly made copies of American products, the Japanese took our methods and improved the quality of their products to the point that it was our products that became inferior.

Yet, we clung to the notion that their products were cheaply made junk and that our cars, television sets, and other consumer goods were the top-of-the-line products. The decline of the American auto industry in the 70’s should be a reminder that our perception of the quality of our own goods can have disastrous results.

Our education system today is another example of our inability to think creatively and “outside the box.” While it is proper and good to insist that no child be left behind, we are not moving into the future. In the manner that the Red Queen spoke to Alice, “we are running twice as fast just to keep in place. If we want to get somewhere, we must run at least twice as fast.” (From Chapter 2 – “The Garden of Live Flowers”, Through the Looking Glass)

It would be one thing if, in one hundred days, President Obama and his administration could fix the problems that were created in the past eight years. But it is not likely that is going to happen. But those who expect such results have no vision for the future, just long glimpses of the past and the desire to hold on to the present. And those who are expecting miracles should know that no miracle can take place without preparation.

Quality control is not a top-down phenomena; it is not upper-level management who generate the ideas that produce the products that make a company successful. Time and time again, we have seen that the initiative for quality comes from the bottom and moves up. What the upper-level can do is make sure that the climate for improvement is there so that those who have ideas will be able to implement them. And those in the middle, who think that their only role in the whole process is to point out that such ideas don’t work or that the method is all wrong, should just shut up and begin generating some new ideas of their own.

The problems of this country were not created on January 20, 2009. They were in place long before then and our attitudes as a people for the past eight years and even before that have lead us to this point. If we expect quality work, then we need to demand quality work and that will require that we ourselves do quality work as well.


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