Quality management: ancient but still relevant

Towards a sustainable future
PostedDecember 04, 2013, in  Step 5: improve & innovate
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‘Quality is the only patented protection we have’ (James Robinson , CEO, American Express ). Quality management isn’t time bound: it has been around for centuries and its importance has only increased: from the quality of the product, to the quality of the processes towards the quality of the organisation. Might the next step be the quality of our society?

Sustainable society (source bteam.org)


Quality management is ancient. Already in the late Middle Ages, the first quality steps were taken in Europe: craftsmen organised themselves into guilds, with the aim to protect their professions against claims. Who ever was a member of the guild, had received solid training and delivered quality.


During the 18th and 19th century, under the influence of innovations in production, the industrialisation age started in Europe. Initially, the work was checked for errors in an unstructured manner only, but as production volumes grew also the need for a more structured form of inspection increased.

Minimizing variations

Around 1920, Dr. Walter Shewhart developed a statistical method to analyze production processes in a structured way. He showed that variations in the process, lead to variations in the product. As such it became more important to standardize the processes as much as possible to minimize errors. Quality control was born.  

Japan gave a good example

Today Japanese products have a good reputation, but this wasn’t always the case. In the 40s of the last century Japanese products were viewed to be 'cheap' and 'bad imitations’. Japanese business leaders decided that this needed to change and sought the help of the American statistician William Deming. Under his influence quality management was introduced and developed. From the 60s onwards employees were given a say in matters. They gathered voluntarily to discuss all aspects of the work. The recommendations of these quality circles resulted in improved operations of Japanese companies. An additional advantage was that staff felt taken seriously, was more satisfied and as result performed better.

Continuous improvement

In the 80s of the last century Europe felt that it was important to take the next quality step and put Total Quality Management (TQM) forward. This management philosophy is based on the desire to meet the expectations of all current and future stakeholders, not just customers, employees and business partners, but also society at large. TQM is synonymous with continuously evaluating and improving the internal organisation. It was a noble endeavour, but its practice proved difficult. There was no consensus on the definitions and a practical framework to provide structure for such a comprehensive ambition was lacking.

Sustainable organisation

That changed when the EFQM Excellence Model took centre stage in the 90s of the last century. Under the heading 'Business Excellence' the approach to be taken was clearly mapped by several big European companies, including Philips, Bosch and Volkswagen. They founded EFQM (European Foundation for Quality Management). Although at that time several excellence models were developed, on a global scale the European EFQM Excellence Model is used the most now.

Towards a sustainable society

The EFQM Model provides clarity on the status of an organisation’s operations. Through mapping strengths and areas for improvement you get a helicopter view of the situation. A fantastic tool, but since quality management has an open ending, there is always room for improvement. In 2015, we will reflect on it again: the EFQM Model will be evaluated in the context of the current and expected future developments in the world. For some time now we have been looking beyond the expectations of shareholders and customers, towards the needs of society at large and the environment in which we live. But we are in a transition phase, from addressing the quality of the organisation, towards the quality of our society and understanding the role the organisation has in it.

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PostedDecember 04, 2013, in Step 5: improve & innovate
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