What Will Quality Look Like in 20 Years?

Peter Holtmann
Quality will be about teaching people the thesaurus of quality terms as it is presented to them.


by Peter Holtmann

To look to the future, the quality profession is revisiting its roots. The question is, “Where is the next generation to help the profession look ahead?” Or, as I like to think of it, “What’s the emoticon for quality?”

I recently attended ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement where we discussed powerful questions such as, “What will quality look like in 20 years? What will it be called? Will it still be relevant?”

The reality of the situation was that I was in a room where the average age was older than the quality movement itself. I mean no disrespect to the elders of our profession as they have taken us a long way, but I wonder what message they will have for future quality leaders.

In one session, we broke into groups to ponder the future of quality and were asked to report back to the room.

One by one, each table presented their considered responses on how tools need to improve to manage process, how the language of quality needs to migrate upward toward the board or C-suite, and how the quality body of knowledge needs to be revisited.

The room comprised leaders from the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America, Australasia, the Middle East, and Africa, and each perspective was diverse and created from the relative age of the quality industry of their origin. The Japanese in particular had an interesting perspective that quality was not a word used in Japan, as it is a part of their daily lives and didn’t require a label to give it substance.

At last it was my turn to speak, an honor thrust upon me by my group as punishment I suspect for being so vocal and making boasts like, “What does quality really mean anyway?”

I was seated at the European table, with delegates coming from a continent where the quality process has been honed to a smooth surface over many decades. We discussed ideas around quality as a term, its value to future generations, and its use in a data-driven society.

My discussion began with, “Quality as a term is obsolete; you just don’t realize it yet.” After the audience adjusted their seats, I continued. “Quality as a process to consistently control iterative acts of production or service to guarantee outcomes is not the quality of 20 years from now.”

I suggested to the room that given the rate of change for adoption of new processes, technology, social structures, and the like, what room is there for a structured quality environment whereby you subscribe to a directive documented in a standard and set your life’s work against the achievement of staying within the boundaries?

Since I wasn’t yet being chased from the room, I continued. “Ten years ago it took 12 months to become compliant to quality practices. Today it could take 10 days depending on your product or service. Tomorrow it could be 10 minutes given the rate of adoption of quality. So why should we remain fixed to a process that was built in the 1800s, documented in the 1950s, globalized in the 1980s, and iterated ever since?”

Seeing the room was on the edge of their seats, I raised the pitch, volume, and ante. “We should consider quality as an on-demand activity whereby the data stream is constant and insatiable.

“In fact, just the amount of data supplied through media such as augmented reality will be so great that it will be difficult to determine good data from bad.

“Given this on-demand, data-filled life, what role does quality play?”

Pushing toward a conclusion, I posited, “Quality as a word is meaningless; it doesn’t even translate into every language or culture. If you asked a Tibetan what quality was he or she might say it’s about being happy.” Incidentally, Tibetans are one of the happiest people on earth.

“Quality as a product is valueless,” I boldly proclaimed. “If you consider the Japanese example from earlier, quality is just a part of your life not something you go to work to do. So why should it be a commercial activity? Hence, quality will be free.

“Quality as change agent for industry will cease to exist as the next generation will be selecting and providing their own products and services from some form of portable device in the comfort of their homes. The type of quality selected will be dependent on a social rating system, not unlike the thumbs up “like” emoticon on social media sites today. You may end up liking product that, in turn, builds the companies activities to ‘follow the thumbs’ as it were.”

Summing up my thoughts, I concluded, “What’s left for quality, or whatever it’s called? Quality will be about teaching people the thesaurus of quality terms as it is presented to them. Knowing what aspects of quality are important and how to seek, digest, and engage with it will be the purpose of the quality profession. Providing the meaning behind the stream of electronic ad nauseam pervading our lives will have meaning.”

I figured I hit a nerve, or at best created uncertainty, by the lack of applause or recognition of my presentation. But really the message wasn’t for the people in the room, it was for the future professional interested in providing thumbs-up moments to the world. They will be the ones to take the concept and run with it.

I hope that this article will be read by the emerging professional and encourage further thought on how to engage with “quality.”

Quality has purpose, but it needs to evolve to remain relevant and effective. There is no right answer to the questions posed here. The perception of one person is as good as another. The opinion with the most likes will prevail.

After reading my thoughts on the future of quality, I would be interested to hear yours. Thumbs up or thumbs down?


One Response

  1. Lisa Velanoff-Wynne
    Lisa Velanoff-Wynne at |

    Thank you for an honest account of your perspective and for being brave enough to posit it at the ASQ World Conference. I have been advocating for a broader understanding of “quality” for decades as the limited “product-based” version never made sense to me. I too worry about our profession and spend most of my professional time coaching the next generation(s). Quality to me is a philosophy and cannot be defined by a carefully constructed definition (despite TC 176’s best efforts). It must first resonate then be believed and then practised.


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