The Ethics of Quality

Guest blog by Dennis Sergent, Principal Consultant, Sergent Results Group  (Follow this link to find Dennis’ previous guest blog post.)

There is a strong correlation between quality and ethics. When leadership demonstrates its philosophy and practice of ethical behavior, it impacts the whole organization, whether in education, government, or commercial enterprises.  In the June 1994 issue of ASQ Quality Progress, Marion Steeples offered these definitions that I ask you to consider:

“Quality is the standard by which Americans measure the goods and services they value.”

“Ethics is the standard by which Americans measure their own behavior and that of institutions.”

Leadership’s example is critical. Yet we have some leaders and practitioners who focus on only a few aspects of quality, to the detriment of the whole system. Focusing on only some of the principles, practices, methods, and tools causes us to miss the aim and purpose of an ethical system to deliver quality. When we lose sight of the big picture, we do not think of the sustainable impact on the system, such as a focus on schemes like cost cutting, headcount reduction, or “driving efficiency throughout the organization.”

A system that values cost cutting, headcount reduction, or efficiency over quality, devalues the ethical behaviors of quality. We only need to look at the recent news media to see examples like Wells Fargo, Takata, Enron, Volkswagen, the Veteran’s Administration, WorldCom, and numerous auto-maker recalls.  In these examples, we can see the effects of unethical manipulation of the numbers or manipulation of the system, instead of improving the system in an ethical way by focusing first on quality in the system.

Recent events in Flint, Michigan, illustrate that this problem cuts across our culture. In the state’s task force report of causes for the long-lasting damage to its citizens, there was a system of causes driven by a focus on balancing the books for Flint. All parts of the system were acting to be efficient with the financial issues that caused Flint to change the water supply, starting with the legislators, through every political office and onto the people who worked directly on the changeover. With a few exceptions, the players and the leaders were simply trying to fulfill their role in efficiently reducing the cost of water and balancing Flint’s balance sheet.

Managers who value efficiency first do so to the detriment of the organization’s beneficiaries, stakeholders, and the sustainability of their system. Yet this is a flaw we are all susceptible to as human beings. Who does not take some pride in completing all of today’s action items? Who doesn’t feel good at handling some problem quickly and getting it into someone else’s hands to care for? Who is immune to the fear of not doing their “part” of the process right?

Ethical managers and leaders can pay attention to the philosophy of quality, and try to understand that the efficiency of their system is an outcome of the causes, beginning with making ethical behavior and quality of the whole system a core value. Dr. W. Edwards Deming said “Quality is made in the boardroom,” and his lifetime of teachings about the practice of learning and improvement with knowledge provide us with examples of his approach to ethics and quality.

Modern systems are extremely complex, and no one person is smart enough to know all the interrelationships. Causes and effects in our systems are distant in space and time. The modern history of a focus on cost savings as the starting point optimizes only part of the system that delivers value to the customer and the stakeholders in the system. This focus on efficiency ahead of effectiveness makes it less than our best ethical thinking. Russell L. Ackoff used efficiency as an operational definition as “doing things right” and effectiveness as “doing the right things.”  Is it not effective to do the right things and also do them right?

Great leaders put ethics, quality, effectiveness, and “respect for people” first in order to eliminate fear in the system, and they look in the mirror often to see if their own thinking is ethical and a cause of quality throughout the system. The evidence is ample that this approach offers a way for leaders of people and organizations to link their values to the value they provide to their system, their stakeholders, and their customers.

Dr. Deming addressed both efficiency and effectiveness with this statement from the first paragraph of his classic article, Code of Professional Conduct:

“(iii) to improve efficiency, uniformity, quality, service, and performance of product; or (iv) to achieve smoother operation and more effective administration and management in industry and in government.”

In this same document, he goes on to describe a number of points that emphasize his ethics and expectations of the customer in details that also define a set of ethics for the relationship and responsibilities between customer and supplier – in his case, the statistician and his clients and customers.  I think this defines the “win-win” he referred to in both Out of the Crisis and The New Economics.

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