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History of Quality

The quality movement can trace its roots back to medieval Europe, where craftsmen began organizing into unions called guilds in the late 13th century.

Until the early 19th century, manufacturing in the industrialized world tended to follow this craftsmanship model. The factory system, with its emphasis on product inspection, started in Great Britain in the mid-1750s and grew into the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s.

In the early 20th century, manufacturers began to include quality processes in quality practices.

After the United States entered World War II, quality became a critical component of the war effort: Bullets manufactured in one state, for example, had to work consistently in rifles made in another. The armed forces initially inspected virtually every unit of product; then to simplify and speed up this process without compromising safety, the military began to use sampling techniques for inspection, aided by the publication of military-specification standards and training courses in Walter Shewhart’s statistical process control techniques.

The birth of total quality in the United States came as a direct response to the quality revolution in Japan following World War II. The Japanese welcomed the input of Americans Joseph M. Juran and W. Edwards Deming and rather than concentrating on inspection, focused on improving all organizational processes through the people who used them.

By the 1970s, U.S. industrial sectors such as automobiles and electronics had been broadsided by Japan’s high-quality competition. The U.S. response, emphasizing not only statistics but approaches that embraced the entire organization, became known as total quality management (TQM).

By the last decade of the 20th century, TQM was considered a fad by many business leaders. But while the use of the term TQM has faded somewhat, particularly in the United States, its practices continue.

In the few years since the turn of the century, the quality movement seems to have matured beyond Total Quality. New quality systems have evolved from the foundations of Deming, Juran and the early Japanese practitioners of quality, and quality has moved beyond manufacturing into service, healthcare, education and government sectors.

Guilds of Medieval Europe

From the end of the 13th century to the early 19th century, craftsmen across medieval Europe were organized into unions called guilds. These guilds were responsible for developing strict rules for product and service quality. Inspection committees enforced the rules by marking flawless goods with a special mark or symbol.

Craftsmen themselves often placed a second mark on the goods they produced. At first this mark was used to track the origin of faulty items. But over time the mark came to represent a craftsman’s good reputation. For example, stonemasons’ marks symbolized each guild member’s obligation to satisfy his customers and enhance the trade’s reputation.

Inspection marks and master-craftsmen marks served as proof of quality for customers throughout medieval Europe. This approach to manufacturing quality was dominant until the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century.

The Industrial Revolution

American quality practices evolved in the 1800s as they were shaped by changes in predominant production methods:

  • Craftsmanship 
  • The factory system 
  • The Taylor system 


In the early 19th century, manufacturing in the United States tended to follow the craftsmanship model used in the European countries. In this model, young boys learned a skilled trade while serving as an apprentice to a master, often for many years.

Since most craftsmen sold their goods locally, each had a tremendous personal stake in meeting customers’ needs for quality. If quality needs weren’t met, the craftsman ran the risk of losing customers not easily replaced. Therefore, masters maintained a form of quality control by inspecting goods before sale.

The Factory System

The factory system, a product of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, began to divide the craftsmen’s trades into specialized tasks. This forced craftsmen to become factory workers and forced shop owners to become production supervisors, and marked an initial decline in employees’ sense of empowerment and autonomy in the workplace.

Quality in the factory system was ensured through the skill of laborers supplemented by audits and/or inspections. Defective products were either reworked or scrapped.

The Taylor System

Late in the 19th century the United States broke further from European tradition and adopted a new management approach developed by Frederick W. Taylor. Taylor’s goal was to increase productivity without increasing the number of skilled craftsmen. He achieved this by assigning factory planning to specialized engineers and by using craftsmen and supervisors, who had been displaced by the growth of factories, as inspectors and managers who executed the engineers’ plans.

Taylor’s approach led to remarkable rises in productivity, but it had significant drawbacks: Workers were once again stripped of their dwindling power, and the new emphasis on productivity had a negative effect on quality.

To remedy the quality decline, factory managers created inspection departments to keep defective products from reaching customers. If defective product did reach the customer, it was more common for upper managers to ask the inspector, “Why did we let this get out?” than to ask the production manager, “Why did we make it this way to begin with?”

The Early 20th Century

The beginning of the 20th century marked the inclusion of “processes” in quality practices.

A “process” is defined as a group of activities that takes an input, adds value to it and provides an output, such as when a chef transforms a pile of ingredients into a meal.

Walter Shewhart, a statistician for Bell Laboratories, began to focus on controlling processes in the mid–1920s, making quality relevant not only for the finished product but for the processes that created it.

Shewhart recognized that industrial processes yield data. For example, a process in which metal is cut into sheets yields certain measurements, such as each sheet’s length, height and weight. Shewhart determined this data could be analyzed using statistical techniques to see whether a process is stable and in control, or if it is being affected by special causes that should be fixed. In doing so, Shewhart laid the foundation for control charts, a modern–day quality tool.

Shewhart’s concepts are referred to as statistical quality control (SQC). They differ from product orientation in that they make quality relevant not only for the finished product but also for the process that created it.

W Edwards Deming, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Census Bureau, became a proponent of Shewhart’s SQC methods and later became a leader of the quality movement in both Japan and the United States.

World War II

After entering World War II in December 1941, the United States enacted legislation to help gear the civilian economy to military production. At that time, military contracts were typically awarded to the manufacturer that submitted the lowest bid. Products were inspected on delivery to ensure conformance to requirements.

During this period, quality became an important safety issue. Unsafe military equipment was clearly unacceptable, and the U.S. armed forces inspected virtually every unit produced to ensure that it was safe for operation. This practice required huge inspection forces and caused problems in recruiting and retaining competent inspection personnel.

To ease the problems without compromising product safety, the armed forces began to use sampling inspection to replace unit-by-unit inspection. With the aid of industry consultants, particularly from Bell Laboratories, they adapted sampling tables and published them in a military standard, known as Mil-Std-105. These tables were incorporated into the military contracts so suppliers clearly understood what they were expected to produce.

The armed forces also helped suppliers improve quality by sponsoring training courses in Walter Shewhart’s statistical quality control (SQC) techniques.

But while the training led to some quality improvement in some organizations, most companies had little motivation to truly integrate the techniques. As long as government contracts paid the bills, organizations’ top priority remained meeting production deadlines. What’s more, most SQC programs were terminated once the government contracts came to an end.

Total Quality

The birth of total quality in the United States was in direct response to a quality revolution in Japan following World War II, as major Japanese manufacturers converted from producing military goods for internal use to producing civilian goods for trade.

At first, Japan had a widely held reputation for shoddy exports, and their goods were shunned by international markets. This led Japanese organizations to explore new ways of thinking about quality.

Deming, Juran, and Japan

The Japanese welcomed input from foreign companies and lecturers, including two American quality experts:

  • W. Edwards Deming, who had become frustrated with American managers when most programs for statistical quality control were terminated once the war and government contracts came to and end. 
  • Joseph M. Juran, who predicted the quality of Japanese goods would overtake the quality of goods produced in the United States by the mid-1970s because of Japan’s revolutionary rate of quality improvement. 

Japan’s strategies represented the new “total quality” approach. Rather than relying purely on product inspection, Japanese manufacturers focused on improving all organizational processes through the people who used them. As a result, Japan was able to produce higher-quality exports at lower prices, benefiting consumers throughout the world.

American managers were generally unaware of this trend, assuming any competition from the Japanese would ultimately come in the form of price, not quality. In the meantime, Japanese manufacturers began increasing their share in American markets, causing widespread economic effects in the United States: Manufacturers began losing market share, organizations began shipping jobs overseas, and the economy suffered unfavorable trade balances. Overall, the impact on American business jolted the United States into action.

The American Response

At first, U.S. manufacturers held onto to their assumption that Japanese success was price-related, and thus responded to Japanese competition with strategies aimed at reducing domestic production costs and restricting imports. This, of course, did nothing to improve American competitiveness in quality.

As years passed, price competition declined while quality competition continued to increase. By the end of the 1970s, the American quality crisis reached major proportions, attracting attention from national legislators, administrators and the media. A 1980 NBC-TV News special report, “If Japan Can… Why Can’t We?” highlighted how Japan had captured the world auto and electronics markets. Finally, U.S. organizations began to listen.

The chief executive officers of major U.S. corporations stepped forward to provide personal leadership in the quality movement. The U.S. response, emphasizing not only statistics but approaches that embraced the entire organization, became known as Total Quality Management (TQM).

Several other quality initiatives followed. The ISO 9000 series of quality-management standards, for example, were published in 1987. The Baldrige National Quality Program and Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award were established by the U.S. Congress the same year. American companies were at first slow to adopt the standards but eventually came on board.

Beyond Total Quality

By the end of the 1990s Total Quality Management (TQM) was considered little more than a fad by many American business leaders (although it still retained its prominence in Europe).

While use of the term TQM has faded somewhat, particularly in the United States, quality expert Nancy Tague says: “Enough organizations have used it with success that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.” (see The Quality Toolbox, ASQ Quality Press, 2005).

As the 21st century begins, the quality movement has matured. Tague says new quality systems have evolved beyond the foundations laid by Deming, Juran and the early Japanese practitioners of quality.

Some examples of this maturation:

  • In 2000 the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards was revised to increase emphasis on customer satisfaction. 
  • Beginning in 1995, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award added a business results criterion to its measures of applicant success. 
  • Six Sigma, a methodology developed by Motorola to improve its business processes by minimizing defects, evolved into an organizational approach that achieved breakthroughs – and significant bottom-line results. When Motorola received a Baldrige Award in 1988, it shared its quality practices with others. 
  • Quality function deployment was developed by Yoji Akao as a process for focusing on customer wants or needs in the design or redesign of a product or service. 
  • Sector-specific versions of the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards were developed for such industries as automotive (QS-9000), aerospace (AS9000) and telecommunications (TL 9000 and ISO/TS 16949) and for environmental management (ISO 14000). 
  • Quality has moved beyond the manufacturing sector into such areas as service, healthcare, education and government. 
  • The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award has added education and healthcare to its original categories: manufacturing, small business and service. Many advocates are pressing for the adoption of a “nonprofit organization” category as well.