The History of Quality Management

By ETQ on January 3, 2017

If you ask most people where quality management was born, they’ll probably point you to the Toyota Production System, widely considered the foundation of lean manufacturing.

But while Toyota might be one of the biggest names associated with quality management, its true history is more complex.

Today’s post looks at the history of quality management, starting from the early days moving through its modern evolution and future trajectory.

The Birth of Quality Management Principles

The roots of quality management go back to the guild system in medieval times, with master craftsman status representing higher quality goods and services. Fast-forward to the industrial revolution, where quality evolved to focus on factory inspections and removing defective goods.

In 1911, mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor was one of the first to systematically study manufacturing efficiency.

In 1924, Western Electric engineer Walter Shewhart proposed a method for statistical quality control. Enter W. Edwards Deming, considered by many the father of quality management. Deming successfully applied Shewhart’s methods to war manufacturing during World War II, where statistical process control helped the armed forces speed up inspections without sacrificing safety.

Once the war and government contracts were at an end, many American managers put aside statistical quality control processes. This frustrated Deming, who found a receptive audience for his ideas in Japan.

The Post-War Quality Revolution

After the devastation of the war, Japan needed a way to rebuild its economy. Leaders there decided to focus on quality, bringing in American experts like Deming and engineer Joseph Juran, who had also worked on statistical sampling at Western Electric.

Deming was a huge proponent of Shewhart’s ideas, developing a methodology he called the Shewhart cycle of plan-do-study-act that’s the basis for the modern plan-do-check-act cycle.

The work of Deming and Juran ushered in a quality revolution in Japan. In coming decades, manufacturers continued to refine quality management methods, going beyond inspection to focus on strategies that also incorporated processes and people.

Throughout the 50s and 60s, Japan’s quality focus allowed manufacturers to produce increasingly higher-quality goods at lower prices. The Toyota Production System was developed during this period, focusing on minimizing inventory and waste. This development represents one of the earliest modern forms of a Quality Management System (QMS).

Over this time, the post-war economic boom had given consumers more power than ever. As the market became increasingly crowded, it was no longer enough to just make a product or slap a “new and improved” label on it. Companies actually had to make consumers happier to win their dollars, shifting the focus towards customer satisfaction.

Quality Competition Forces Big Changes

By the 1970s, Japan was outcompeting the U.S. in automobiles and electronics manufacturing. Experts like Juran had predicted this trend, yet it still took many companies by surprise.

For the most part, American companies believed increased competition from Japan was related solely to lower prices. As consumers bought up Japanese goods, U.S. companies began losing market share, leading to cost-cutting and import restriction strategies. Not surprisingly, these methods did nothing to improve the quality of goods.

With the American economy suffering from its inability to compete on quality, U.S. corporate leaders finally stepped up. Total Quality Management was born, setting the stage for a flourishing of quality and operational excellence strategies in the U.S.

In 1987, the first official version of ISO 9000 was published, leading to slow but steady adoption by American companies.

The Evolution of Quality in the 21st Century

Whereas TQM was a major early force in quality management in the U.S., it has largely faded from view in recent decades in favor of newer approaches such as Six Sigma and lean manufacturing.

Where is quality headed from here? We’re seeing a few big shifts:

  • Integration: Technology now makes it possible for companies to break down barriers between departments, which has long been a foundational principle of quality management. As companies move in this direction, they’re also integrating the QMS with processes like safety and sustainability, which are also tied to customer satisfaction.
  • Big Data: Today’s QMS captures more data than ever, allowing companies to leverage sophisticated reporting and business intelligence tools to build a competitive advantage.
  • Risk Management: Companies are realizing that risk management and quality are inseparably linked. Risk awareness is growing among quality managers, something reflected in the risk-based approaches now being leveraged in recent iterations of ISO 9001.

We’ve come a long way in improving quality. Now the question is how to build on that success. No matter how your company approaches it, it’s clear that data and statistical analysis will remain front and center.