Asia / Creativity / Economy / Education / Incompleteness / Philosophy / Quality

Two meanings of “Quality”

File:Dao-caoshu.pngThe word “quality” can be used to mean quite different things. I want to explore here a distinction between two uses of the word that are connected but are actually quite opposed to each other.

In large organizations like companies and authorities, there is nowadays a lot of discussion about “quality management” and “quality assurance”. Quality, in such contexts, may be defined as the absence of faults or flaws.

The trend to introduce measures to increase quality in this sense can be found in schools, in the health sector, in social welfare, in the IT-departments of large companies and so on. The measures taken to reduce “quality problems” include the introduction of formalized or bureaucratic working processes and regulations and the introduction of “quality control” procedures, of certification processes and the like. Large numbers of consultants spend their time to introduce methods of quality management in organizations and companies.

People confronted with the introduction of such methods will generally experience frustration. Scope of discretion and leeway in decision-making are being reduced. Their role is changed from that of autonomous individuals responsible for their work to that of an operative who executes tasks. Dedication and commitment are lost. People who used to do their work with the aim of doing it well, taking pride in it and deriving satisfaction from it, now just do it as a job.

The quality that was once part of the work and that also emerged as its result is lost. And here I use the word “quality” in a second, different sense. Quality in this second sense is destroyed by “quality assurance”, “quality management” and “quality control”. If the word “quality” is used in this second sense, a term like “quality control” is a contradiction in itself. Quality in this second sense is a result of mastery. It requires autonomy and responsibility. It cannot be captured completely by any formalized methods or procedures. The methods that a master can explicitly describe will always only cover a subset (possibly a small subset) of what he or she actually does, and at times the master will break those rules. Mastery exists above the level of rules, regulations and procedures.

If you introduce bureaucratic regulations, mastery will be destroyed; and with it destruction, the outstanding excellence and quality (in the second sense) of the working process and its results is lost. In areas that require creativity (like, for example, product design or computer programming) or compassion (like the health or education sectors), the results are devastating.

While “quality assurance” suffices to reduce the worst faults and flaws, it also destroys the top quality. An organization relying on mastery risks the occasional failure, the very poor result, but is able to produce outstanding results as well. The bureaucratic, quality-assured organization, on the other hand, will produce a relatively stable, reproducable and predictable mediocrity. You cannot complain about its results, but they are not really good. They don’t have real quality.

For example, using a regime of quality assurance methods, you can run a canteen with acceptable results, but if you apply such methods to a gourmet restaurant, it will inevitably loose that status.

The conflict between those who want to use methods, rules and regulations to avoid “quality problems” and those who seek for real quality through becoming masters, striving to perfect themselves in order to become able to produce outstanding results, is by no means a new phenomenon. If you look into the texts of ancient Chinese Confucianism and Daoism, you see the same discussions. About 2500 years ago, several large states formed in what is now China and people where, for the first time in this region of the world, confronted with the problem of how to run such large and complex organizations.

Indeed this is the central topic of Chinese philosophy. Some texts of this philosophical tradition that appear mystic, esoteric and paradox if taken out of context (like they often where in the west) become understandable if read with this background in mind.

On the Confucian side, you have those advocating managing and ruling by regulations, rituals, formalized conventions, customs and hierarchies, methods and procedures. The word “dao” (way) is used by them in the sense of “method” or “procedure”.

On the other side are the Daoists who have given this word a more abstract meaning, conceding the impossibility to explicitly comprehend the methods by which things should be managed. The master knows how to do it (i.e. the dao), but cannot describe it completely and explicitly. The master will try to perfect himself and then the good rule or management will emerge by itself as a result. The Daoist Zhuang Zi coined the formula “Nei Sheng Wai Wang” (lit. Inside holy outside rule) for this, which might be understood as “to rule outside by perfecting yourself (inside)”.

If you assure quality, quality will be destroyed. Or, as the Daoist Lao Zi put it: Those who know (the Dao) are not extensively learned; the extensively learned do not know it.

(The caligraphy of the Chinese “Dao” is from

17 thoughts on “Two meanings of “Quality”

  1. I can find myself in this quality essay. I have seen a lot of quality disappear when managers appeared. Made me think of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. Thanks.

  2. Quality, in the first sense you describe, is ultimately counterproductive. That is because it is not purposed to producing real quality. Its purpose is to increase profit.

    It should be crystal clear by now, to anyone who cares to pay any attention whatsoever, that profit trumps everything.

    The capitalist for-profit system, with its usury and consumerism, is dying. Left to itself, it will soon self-destruct. Unfortunately it will destroy much of Earth and its Life in the process.

    Just my opinion.

  3. in my line of work, we ask for quality control procedures. i am interested in knowing how my contractor plans to maintain a correct mix, materials and so on and i think in this sense it ain’t counterproductive. with quality control procedures in place, you don’t need a master to do the work, anyone with expertise can follow the procedure and you have your work what it does it to the person is a different matter

    • For many areas of work, this seems justified, however, I would suggest to call it not “quality control” but “fault avoidance” or something like that. To take the restaurant-example, it makes sense to implement a strict cleaning procedure and make sure it is kept. But wherever creativity is involved (and my own job, computer programming, is such an area) introducing a control bureaucracy is counterproductive. The methods have been developed in the environment of producing industries like car production and are now applied to software production, but that does not work well.stead of turning the IT department into one big “canteen”, it would be better, in my view, to organize it as a collection of small, relatively independent “chef restaurants”.
      From the point of view of the worker, introducing process-oriented schemes is, according to my experience and observations, experienced as a reduction of humanness. The person is no longer treated as a person who is responsible for something but as a function and a “resource”. This is deeply demotivating. As you say, anybody can do the job. Highly skilled workers can be replaced by less skilled cheaper ones, although really good results (what I would call quality, i.e. quality in the second sense) will not be produced in such an environment.

    • Implicit knowledge is analyzed and made explicit. It can then be implemented in the form of a process that people with less expertise can execute. However, in work involving creativity, where unique situations are analyzed and new things must be invented (like product design or programming) or where you have to respond to individual people (like in the social, health or education sectors) the explicit knowledge is always incomplete. What you can define as methods will cover maybe 70 % or so, and actually the worker has to creatively invent new knowledge (and the meta knowledge he uses for this can also not be made explicit completely). In such an area, the method-oriented “Confucian” approach does not work well.
      It does work in areas like the car industry (where such approaches where introduced decades ago) where the properties of the product are completely determined by the design. But here, as well, it has a dehumanizing effect on the workers. The satisfaction from work comes from being in charge, and the process takes that out of your hands.

      • I agree in areas of creativity it wouldn’t work. It is like having a control programme for how I design a house or how I respond to a client, it would be absurd to come up with such a mechanism.
        To be in charge allows one to even feel they have a share in the company even if these is just a feeling. To make everyone automatons, they become part of the furniture and can be replaced whenever the company desires so

    • In a capitalist system “quality control” of materials and “so on” usually means ensuring the materials are the cheapest that can be found while charging the customer the highest possible price and making sure any subcontracting goes to the lowest bidder.

      Maximising profit is the real goal, not providing high quality goods or services.

      The objective is to provide a veneer of quality that disguises a pile of crap. The proverbial lipstick on a pig scenario.

      I don’t contend that this is the case 100% of the time, only 90 – 95.😦

      • I agree with you on two counts. Contracts and sub contracts go to the lowest tenderer but this is mainly determined by money matters. As to materials even though I can’t speak for all practioneers, I know we try to get the best quality within the range the customer can afford. I can’t order marble or granite when the client can only afford ceramic tiles.
        How does the architect maximize profit by going for the lowest tenderer?

        • Of course it’s all determined by “money matters” and that’s what’s wrong. But I don’t want to see this thread devolve into a debate between you and me over the depravity of capitalism and the profit motive.

          Everything goes to the root of the problem, which is profit. If the goal was quality rather than profit, this blog post would have never been written.

          I am an unapologetic Utopian. In my opinion profit should not be a consideration for anything.

          The design and building or manufacture of anything intended to be useful and functional should, first and foremost, be concerned with utility. Form follows function.

          The product should be designed and realised to perform its function in the most efficient way possible while having the longest possible useful lifetime and requiring the least possible amount of maintenance.

          Planned obsolescence is rampant, utterly immoral and should be a punishable crime.

          Allowance for future advances in technology and/or other improvements should be planned into the design so the product can be easily upgraded rather than replaced if possible.

          Only after these and any other utilitarian and functional goals have been met should consideration of aesthetics be allowed. Once the utility of the product has been established there should be no limitations placed upon its decorative or aesthetic enhancement as long as it in no way alters, hinders or impairs that utility.

          If the architect is strictly the designer and is paid a flat fee for the design, then who builds the structure and how they build it is irrelevant.

          If the architect is hired to oversee the entire project from design to completion and given a fixed budget to work with, then the answer to your question is obvious.

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