The 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 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dao-caoshu.png)