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Three Pillars of Quality

David Straker


This article first appeared Quality World, the journal of the Chartered Quality Institute


How do businesses work? What is the role of the quality profession in this? These have been questions that have challenged many of us in different ways over much of our working life. Unlike most other professions, those of us with ‘quality’ in our job title have changed direction and scope many different times. This article describes a simple model of how businesses work and the changing role of the quality profession within this.


The picture above shows the simple model of business that is used, and how understanding of our external business environment and internal capabilities and desires lead to changes in our business system for creating and delivering changing value that enables us to sustain and grow our businesses. This system is discussed in further detail below, along with consideration of the impact on the quality profession.

The Three Pillars


The first stage of any business is understanding, including understanding what is needed and how to satisfy these needs. A sound understanding will lead to sound decisions, whereas decisions based on assumptions and guesswork will lead to surprises and fire fighting which is not a winning strategy.

Understanding needs (and attendant expectations) is not merely about customers but all the players in the game. It means knowing who they are, what value they bring, and what they want to take out of the pot in return for continued patronage. Stakeholder needs are met by a complex system involving many other stakeholders. Just as traditional quality uses tools like Cpk, the classic measure of manufacturing capability, so we need to understand how the entire delivery engine works.

Understanding includes present and future needs and capabilities, with a consideration of external forces such as competition and legislation. Imagination, based on knowledge, is an important factor here: when customers change their goals and competitors change strategy, we still want to stay ahead of the game.

Real-world understanding includes understanding where incomplete knowledge exists. When this is openly accepted, associated risks can be identified and actively managed. Much of the work involved in business is about managing surprises. Quality should include reducing surprises by highlighting realities in time to prepare for possibilities. With an improved understanding, we can make decisions that will lead to better chances of staying in business. This means balancing stakeholder value needs with current and future capabilities of both internal and external systems. It means saying no and focusing resources to retain key stakeholders and increase targeted value flows (such as more lucrative customers and growing markets).


Decisions are, in one sense, promises. They commit resources to the achievement of objectives. They are investing value now to achieve value later. Most business decisions at a strategic level lead to necessary changes in the business system to achieve new business goals. Serious business improvement is undertaken to meet explicit or implicit promises of strategic decisions.

Improvements in practice have not always been successful in helping to meet promises. A classic failure has been to target improvements off the business line. Practicing in safe areas is one thing, but as Wallace Andrews said: ‘You can learn all you want about Freud, but sooner or later you have to go out with the girls.’

Understanding is the foundation of improvement. Attempting to improve systems with intuition and pseudo-brainstorming can be a dangerous game. Systems are interconnected wholes: changing one element can have a significant impact on other, often distant, parts of the system. Improvement without true understanding is easy. You shift the work somewhere else, but improperly fixing one problem just causes another to pop up somewhere else.

As well as working on meeting today’s promises, improvements can target the longer-term. In Competing for the Future, Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad highlighted how competencies can take years to develop and that tomorrow’s competitions are already being won or lost in improvements we are making today.


When needs and capabilities are understood and the system improved, all we need to do is make sure that it actually works. Ideally, there would be no need for assurance, but it is part of the system where specifications are important. The previous stages ensured that definitions of what was to be done were optimal and clear - this stage is about making sure things happen on time, every time.

Basis for survival

The three pillars fit together to form the basis for survival of all businesses and organisations. The job of the quality professional is to understand, improve and assure the operation of the whole business system within which he or she works, as below.

Assurance: the quality of keeping promises

The modern concept of quality started on the manufacturing line, where quality professionals worked to ensure that products met given specifications. This is the domain of quality control and assurance, in which we are the clear masters of documented systems and audited processes. The quality of assurance is, at its most fundamental, about meeting stated or implied promises (for example, as defined in product specifications). This quality is about sameness and consistency.

Improvement: the quality of creating capability to keep promises

Improvement has gradually merged into quality, and with the dawning of the TQM era1, quality professionals became involved in the improvement of the broad business system. Improvement requires new levels of knowledge and skill, such as an understanding of the way to design processes and business systems. Products are designed by people with professional qualifications in the subject. The design of processes and broader organisational systems deserves equal discipline. Improvement is the quality of change. Initially about changing processes, it has evolved into changing organisational systems. It requires analysis, innovation, and serious interpersonal skills. If QA means keeping promises, then quality improvement involves building a system capable of doing so.

Understanding: the quality of making the right promises

The final domain that requires our attention is that of understanding. Understanding is both the philosopher’s stone and the critical challenge for quality in the new millennium, as Deming suggested in his emphasis of the need for ‘profound knowledge’. Quality of information, quality of understanding and quality of decisions are as critical as the quality of products and services that flow from them. We must not only understand machines and processes but people and complex systems. Only then can we make the right promises and ensure that we keep them. Understanding requires a constant quest for deeper knowledge and alternative meaning. It is not an end in itself, but it requires patience and passion to keep on digging and refining, as the knowledge gained today may not be of value until some time later. Learning is a lifetime’s occupation, so you might as well enjoy it. Understanding is the underpinning that enables both improvement and assurance. The domain of the quality professional is significant, and just as business systems are interlocked, so are these areas necessary to ensure we make wise promises and then keep them. If quality assurance and improvement are about keeping promises, then understanding is about ensuring that the right promises are made.

Large and small pillars

Not everyone in the profession does or should work at the business level, but everyone needs to work at the three levels of assurance, improvement and understanding. For example, even within a limited domain such as the quality of electronic resistors, there are needs to understand materials, improve processes and assure deliveries. An understanding of the broader context into which your work fits is also increasingly important.

Because quality covers all areas of the business, it is not reasonable for everyone in the profession to be expected to understand everything. As the domain grows, there is room for both generalists and specialists, as in the medical profession, where GPs are able to deal with common conditions and are also able to diagnose and refer unusual cases to specialists.

The work continues

This article is in some ways radical and some ways not. For some this will be heresy, yet in other organisations much of this will be going on already, even though the quality job may be defined in different terms. The primary objective here has been to highlight what already exists, to make implicit knowledge explicit, and to suggest a future. The work goes on. There is much to do and we are the only people who can do it. Below are three suggestions for our profession’s next steps.

Understand people

TQM catapulted many quality professionals into the company limelight, simultaneously failing to cushion the blow as they hit the hard ground of ‘limited success’. To be sure, management commitment was and is a key reason for failure, but we cannot throw the first stone: we have also failed to create and assure that commitment. A lack of understanding of people and psychology is probably our biggest weakness as a profession. We understand the problems of the organisation, yet we fail to communicate and persuade. A deeper understanding of psychology may be a small step for us, but it could lead to giant leaps for our companies.

Improve processes

Processes are not as well-understood as they should be. They are still often designed on the back of the proverbial fag-packet. The user-unfriendliness of documentation systems is legendary. Even in our best companies, process scores in business excellence applications tend not to be the highest. We must improve the design and management of all sorts of processes, including the complex management and support processes that do not easily succumb to procedural techniques used with manual manufacturing processes.

Assure the quality professional

For a profession in which there is little academic education, professional certification is woefully inadequate. Many professionals have no professional qualification and no professional affiliation. They may be wonderful at their jobs, but we just don’t know! Not exactly a quality situation. When employers recruit quality professionals and look at the ones they already employ, they should have confidence in what they are getting - they have every right to look to the national institute to provide that assurance.

Those professionals should be the most valuable people in every company, where their daily job is no less than ensuring that the whole company survives and thrives well into the new millennium.


1 TQM actually started in 1951, with the publication of Armand Feigenbaum’s Total Quality Control

A brief bibliography for new understanding


Those who would change the world must first understand it. This is a very short reading list in some topics of interest, many of which influenced the ideas in this paper. You will not find any books on statistics or traditional quality tools here: these are a given and assumed to already have a place in your library. These books are intended to help you push the envelope of your understanding.



Peggy Holman and Tom Devane (eds), The Change Handbook, Berrett-Koehler, 1999 - a marvellous set of summaries of all the major big-systems change methodologies, all by the original proponents

Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (3rd Edition), Free Press, 1983 - the original work on how ideas spread through groups of people. This is where the term ‘early adopter’ came from


Chaos and complexity

John L. Casti, Complexification, Abacus, 1994 - a good ‘popular science’ book that covers the various areas of complexity, catastrophe, emergence

Shona L. Brown and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Competing on the Edge, Harvard Business School Press, 1998 - a very practical application of chaos principles to business strategy



Paco Underhill, Why we buy, Touchstone, 1999 - a finely-observed book, nominally on how people shop in retail environments, but really about how to see what is really happening

Frederick F. Reichheld, The Loyalty Effect, Harvard Business School Press, 1996 - a view of the whole system of loyalty, including customer, employee and shareholder loyalty



Scott Plous, The Psychology of Judgement and Decision-making, McGraw Hill, 1993 - a concise set of descriptions of most of the patterns of (largely dysfunctional) behaviour we use when making decisions

Gary Klein, Sources of Power, MIT Press, 1999 - the result of a long study of rapid life-and-death decisions made under pressure, such as with fire fighters, where ‘intuition’ is a major tool



Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes, Business Books, 1981 - the original and still the best book on collaborative negotiation

G. Richard Shell, Bargaining for Advantage, Penguin books, 1999 - the best of the modern books from the director of the ‘Wharton executive negotiation workshop’



IF Price and Ray Shaw, Shifting the Patterns, Management books 2000, 1998 - a serious look at patterns in organisations

Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, Oxford University Press, 1979 - this describes the development of the pattern language for buildings through penetrating observation of what really does and does not work in practice



John Sterman, Business Dynamics, McGraw-Hill, 2000 - the definitive work on systems thinking, causal loops and modelling. Big but readable and essential

Russell Ackoff, Recreating the Corporation, Oxford University Press, 1999 - the latest from the old master. Includes many of his principles about systems along with applications in organisation design

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