In our last post, we tackled the challenge of trying to define quality. Now, let’s give this some context by looking at the history of quality to see how its evolution has shaped our current approaches.

The quality movement can be traced all the way back to medieval Europe. In the late 13th century, craftsmen organized themselves into guilds responsible for developing strict rules for product and service quality.

These rules were enforced by inspection committees who marked flawless goods with a special symbol. Craftsmen would often also place a second mark on their products to represent their reputation. These marks served as proof of quality and were commonplace until the industrial revolution in the early 19th century.

As the factory system came into being, craftsmen’s trades began to divide into specialized tasks, forcing craftsmen to become factory workers and shop owners to become production supervisors. In this environment, quality was ensured through laborer skill and was guaranteed by audits and inspections.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the United States moved away from European tradition and adopted a new approach to quality developed by Frederick W. Taylor.

Taylor’s goal was to boost productivity without increasing the number of skilled craftsmen. This was achieved by assigning factory planning to specialized engineers and using craftsmen and supervisors as inspectors and managers. Although this approach led to increased productivity, it had a negative impact on quality. To solve the problem, inspection departments were created to stop defective products from reaching the market.

The next evolution in quality came at the beginning of the 20th century, which saw the inclusion of processes on quality practices.

In the 1920’s, a statistician for Bell Laboratories named Walter Shewhart began to focus on controlling processes. This approach made quality relevant not only for the finished product, but also the processes that created it. Shewhart’s approach involved statistics and he went on to lay the foundation for control chats—a modern day quality tool.

After entering World War II in 1941, the United States geared the civilian economy toward military production. At the time, military contracts were typically awarded to the manufacturer who put forward the lowest bid. In this scenario, products were inspected on delivery to ensure they conformed to the requirements.

Initially, virtually every unit was inspected by the U.S. armed forces to ensure that it was safe for operation. This required a large number of resources and caused problems in recruiting and retaining competent inspection personnel.

To solve these problems without compromising product safety, the military began to use sampling techniques for inspection aided by the publication of military specification standards and training on Shewhart’s statistical quality control (SQC) techniques.

Although published standards and training led to quality improvements in some organizations, most companies had little motivation to fully integrate the techniques. When the war ended and the government contacts concluded, most SQC programs were also terminated.

World War II left Japanese manufacturing decimated and the country had a reputation for churning out shoddy goods.

Post-war Japan underwent a quality revolution. Major Japanese manufacturers moved from producing military goods to civilian goods for trade. To begin with, Japan held a reputation for sub-standard exports. To improve their reputation, the Japanese welcomed input from foreign experts, including W. Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran.

Japan’s strategy to focus on improving all organizational processes through the people who used them represented a new approach to quality. As a result, Japan was able to produce high-quality exports at lower prices and began to increase their share of worldwide markets.

The U.S. response to these market gains was total quality management (TQM), which emphasized not only statistics, but also approaches that embraced the entire organization.

Over time, the quality movement has matured beyond TQM to become more focused and lateral. Quality improvement methods are now a key part of most quality systems.

Quality has also moved beyond the manufacturing industry into sectors including service, health care, education, and government.

For a more detailed look at the history of quality, why not take our Quality 101 course? Click here to learn more.