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Whatever happened to the ‘Q’ Word?

November 15, 2010

Thus boldly boasted at the start of  the year that I/we would focus on single-handedly starting a quality drive. After a lot of hard work, some hot air and a survey conducted with CQI and YouGov Stone, we staged a debate in May 2010 entitled ‘Whatever Happened to the ‘Q’ Word?’ Hosted brilliantly by Andrew Neil (I never thought I’d say THAT but credit where it’s due).

The upshot of my research was that the overwhelming majority of Uk opinion formers agreed that a decline in quality of goods and services was the root cause of our economic malaise and imbalance of trade. Chief culprits, unsurprisingly, were central and local government services, which had markedly declined despite vastly increased budgets. Government bureaucracy resulted in ten times more laws over 12 years than in the previous period, while the 2006 Companies Act was the longest document in British legal history. Close behind were Britain’s rapacious utility companies, privatised quasi-monopolies themselves mostly owned by state owned French and German  utilities, with the exception of Virgin, which is ‘owned’ by a man whose genius is delivering second-best, getting a government subsidy for doing so, but convincing us we got a great deal.

Over 50% of respondents agreed that ‘quality is everyone’s business’ but only 27% thought it was an individual’s responsibility. Most respondents thought the quality of the things they provided had increased over the past year but that quality standards in general had fallen. Less than 30% had a formal quality function in their organisation but virtually everyone was familiar with the theory, practice and terminology of ‘quality.’

What clearly emerged from the study and the live debate was that people were acutely aware of the need to improve quality but didn’t necessarily trust the Quality guys to deliver it for them. Also, while 53% is a majority, no Japanese or German manager would be satisfied if less than 80% of his cohorts, much less senior managers, didn’t acknowldge that Quality was EVERYONE’S job. So we have a problem: the quality guys are seen as clipboard-wielding functionaries (let’s be honest, most of them are) while the top managers think that quality will look after itself, aided and abetted by gurus who tell us that quality is SO last century.

Recently the G20 sagely proclaimed that ‘surplus’ countries such as Germany, Japan and, of course, China, should be ‘encouraged’ to export less and focus more on ‘domestic consumption’ while deficit countries such as the US and UK should make a bit of an effort to export more and consume less imports. Well shave my beard and call me normal! How many supercomputers did it take to work out that macroeconomic solution? Germany, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan all export more than they consume because they are quite good at making quality products. China, The US’s biggest creditor, exports shedloads because it pays its workers slave wages and keeps its currency low. The UK scarcely manufactures anything noteworthy and the US prefers to lay off workers and create the largest deficit the world has ever seen on the principle that the virtual economy has replaced the real economy.

Quality has been the casualty of short-termism in the Anglo-Saxon model and without it we will be consigned to economic and actual mediocrity. Our cost of living will continue to rise while standards will continue to fall, in a grotesque capitalist parallel of the failed Communist system.