Quality is dead, long live quality
A decade ago, at the end of the cold war, Francis Fukuyama famously declared 'the end of history.' We've travelled as far as it is possible to go, he said, and Western liberal democracy has prevailed – the argument is over.

There are people who say similar things about quality. In the latest of a long line of milestone publications (Leading the Revolution, Harvard Business School Press), strategist and business-analyst Gary Hamel says something like 'forget about quality, it's an old-fashioned idea, concentrate instead on innovation.' And he's not alone. There's an emerging new-economy viewpoint that quality is now a commodity, a given – the argument is over.

Before tackling that, let's take stock. “If you went back to the 1950's and asked somebody where quality comes from,” Hamel said in a New York Times interview (August 27, 2000) “they would have said either from the artisan or from the inspector. It either came from somebody with magical hands making luxury goods or from somebody at the end of a production line weeding out the bad products.”

These days, it's pretty well accepted that a fence at the top of the cliff is more cost-effective than an ambulance at the bottom, and hardly anyone tries to inspect-in quality. Firms are dismantling their QA departments. Quality in the new economy is everyone's business, the argument goes – no longer an arcane speciality, but a core competency of every line worker (or every line manager).

But, Gary Hamel, the argument is far from over. We haven't come to the end of quality. The April shake-out that saw the collapse of the NASDAQ bubble, also precipitated what former Amazon.com president Joseph Galli (Time, September 4th 2000) called “a flight to quality.” But what did he mean by 'quality'?

If it's about performance excellence, about doing business better, then what will it focus on?

Here's my top-five prescription:
customer experience – great customer experiences develop brand identity, increase loyalty and grow revenues. Many users still find the internet an intimidating, foreign environment
leadership and strategy – the need for (and nature of) leadership changes as dot-coms scale up from good ideas to real businesses. It will be much more about empowering teams and one-to-one coaching than vision, heroic leadership and media profile
Mobility – 'internet time' may be a clichι, but moving quickly is a core capability. Fast-track processes and bullet-proof new product introduction will be the order of the day
ethics and privacy (and trust) – getting ethics 'wrong' can cripple a business and may expose it to government regulation and severe legal sanctions. Bad news travels fast on the internet, and is very hard to shake
results – investors may have been prepared to suspend their disbelief before the April correction, but now 'market fundamentals' matter, and business models that don't identify a route to profit will be dog-tucker.

And if quality is about meeting minimum standards, about assurance, what would the underlying principles of an e-QA system be?

How about:
speed – to accommodate the highly-compressed time schedules of the dot-com world
flexibility – to cope with the high rate of change, including frequent changes in requirements
easy and fast to learn – requiring minimal personnel resources, easily taught to new employees
accessibility – with freeware support, or other on-line, inexpensive and user-friendly tools, to meet the day-to-day needs of designers, engineers, and back-office users
acceptability – an e-ISO9000 would need widespread, international, acceptance to have any certification credibility.

A business excellence 'e-Baldrige' is probably not far away – I'm working on one with a small international team, and I'll bet there are other teams working on similar projects. And there's already an e-business QA product (at www.clicksure.com), which worryingly offers self-certification in just 24 hours!

We're at the end of the beginning of quality, whatever Gary Hamel and the new-economy zealots may say. It's not dead (just say Firestone), but it is certainly going to be different.

Malcolm Macpherson is a seven year veteran quality award assessor, publisher and communicator. He edits a web site dedicated to the Baldrige Award. Contact him at macalex1@xtra.co.nz, or visit www.baldrigeplus.com

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