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The History and Philosophy of Leading Quality

The Latin word for quality is qualitas, standing for the nature, state, and condition of a thing. The Old French word for quality is qualite, meaning temperament, character, and disposition. It can be argued that the quality of product and service of an organization begins with the character of the people who produce these, especially the leader.

The highest level of quality embodies the spirit of the Greek word Arete, the love and pursuit of excellence as a virtue. This is reflected in Toyota's Basic Management Handbook: The only acceptable quality percentage is 100 percent. Every car must be manufactured exactly to specification. No Toyota vehicle should ever leave the factory without passing every quality test perfectly. One can see the positive attitude, high standards, and uncompromising commitment of a winner in Toyota's mandate to leaders. Toyota believes the success of the company rises and falls, depending on leaders' adherence to this high standard of work performance. This is the 'character' of the best leaders in every industry, profession, and trade.1

The Quality Movement

In his work on servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf proposes that the world can be saved as long as three truly great institutions exist– one in the private sector, one in the public sector, and one in the nonprofit sector. He believes that these organizations will achieve success through a spirit of community and that their success will serve as a beacon for the world. The key in every case is the empowerment of people.2

If there is a single most important factor in efforts to empower employees, it is the quality challenge faced by companies struggling to compete in a global marketplace. Simply, consumers demand quality products and services, and providing them requires a talented, committed, and empowered workforce.3

The philosophy behind the quality movement is that the people closest to the work usually have the experience and knowledge needed to come up with the best solutions to work-related problems.

Ren McPherson, former president of Dana Corporation and dean of business at Stanford University, points out:

Until we believe that the expert in any particular job is most often the person performing it, we shall forever limit the potential of that person in terms of contribution to the organization and in terms of personal development. Consider a manufacturing setting: Within their 25-square-foot area, nobody knows more about how to operate a machine, maximize its output, improve its quality, optimize the material flow, and keep it operating efficiently than do the machine operators, material handlers, and maintenance people responsible for it. Nobody.4

The department store Nordstrom puts the philosophy and spirit of the quality movement into practice. Posted in the employee handbook is a five-by-eight-inch card with the following words: "Welcome to Nordstrom. We are glad you are here! Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them, so our employee handbook is very simple. We have only one rule: 'Use your good judgment in all situations.' There are no additional rules. Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or human resource office any question at any time."

Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, was famous for tapping the ideas of frontline employees, the people closest to the customer, saying, "The key to our success is to get out into the stores and listen to what our associates have to say." It is interesting to note that when he died, Sam Walton was the richest man on the planet and was beloved by his employees and customers.

An example of "forgetting the consultant and asking the employee" comes from one of New York's leading cultural institutions. Before contracting with an expensive outside consultant to determine which of its many exhibits was the most popular with visitors, management got the idea to ask the janitor where he had to mop the most.5

W. Edwards Deming

The influence of one person, W. Edwards Deming, has been critical in the history of the quality movement. In 1947, he was recruited by American authorities in Japan to help prepare a census, and immediately he took an interest in the restructuring of the Japanese economy. In 1950, 49-year-old Deming delivered a speech to the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) entitled "The Virtues of Quality Control as a Manufacturing Philosophy." This speech was to have a profound effect on Deming's audience. The Japanese believed in this teacher from the United States, with his Spartan dedication to work and Socratic teaching style, and they applied his ideas.6

The primary result of Deming's influence in Japan was that people at the production level were taught the statistical techniques of quality control, then were delegated the task and the power to organize their work so that the quality of products could be improved. Also, Deming was able to convince top management of the necessity of personal involvement and commitment to building quality products.7

The Deming Way

No discussion about leadership and quality is complete without including Deming's 14 points for a successful workplace. These points or practices are timeless and can be applied in both private and public organizations.

  1. Create consistency and continuity of purpose. Plan products with an eye to the long-range needs of the company; don’t succumb to the pressures of the quarterly report.
  2. Set high standards. No company can compete in the world market until its management discards old notions about acceptable levels of mistakes, defects, and inadequate training and supervision.
  3. Eliminate dependence on mass inspection for quality. Use statistical controls for incoming and outgoing goods.
  4. Reduce the number of suppliers. Buy based on statistical evidence of quality, not price.
  5. Recognize that there are two sources of quality problems: faulty systems (85 percent probability) and the production worker (15 percent probability). Strive to constantly improve the system.
  6. Improve job training. Make continuous learning a way of life. Teach statistical techniques. The rudiments can be learned in a five-day intensive course.
  7. Provide a higher level of supervision. Focus supervision on helping people to do a better job, and provide tools and techniques for people to have pride in their work.
  8. Break down barriers between departments. Encourage problem-solving through teamwork. Create a team consisting of design, research, sales, purchasing, and production personnel to eliminate errors and waste.
  9. Stamp out fear by encouraging open, two-way communication.
  10. Abolish numerical goals and slogans.
  11. Use statistical methods for continuous improvement of quality and productivity.
  12. Remove barriers to pride of work.
  13. Institute a vigorous program of education and training to keep people abreast of new developments in methods, materials, and technologies.
  14. Clearly define management's permanent commitment to quality and productivity.

Number 14 deserves special emphasis. In the absence of visible commitment at the top, quality initiatives are doomed to failure.8

Quality Synthesis

As business schools and colleges expanded during the 1970s, old-line professors steeped in classical principles of management distilled from Frederick Taylor had to defend their theories against the onslaught of young behavioral scientists oriented toward human relations. Some time passed before both groups came to understand that there is no single best way to manage in a complex environment. Both the classicist and the behaviorist had to find that there was good in both points of view. During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the quality movement became the catalyst for joining these two management views. Here was one management technique that combined participative leadership practices with a problem-solving orientation, and it was being fervently employed in a real-world lab by the industrious Japanese as they outstripped competitors and set new standards of quality.

The leadership philosophy behind quality improvement efforts such as total quality management (TQM) and continuous quality improvement (CQI) is both hard, based on scientific management, and soft, concerned with the human side of work. It is this balance or blend that helps account for its general acceptance across the broad spectrum of managers today. By focusing on quality goals and using problem-solving tools and methods, quality improvement activities satisfy the needs of managers whose values lie with Frederick Taylor, the management classicists, and quantitative analysis. Such "hard-nosed" managers are drawn to the "end product" benefits of better products and services.

Likewise, by focusing on employee empowerment and personal growth, and by using group process techniques, quality improvement activities satisfy the needs of managers who trace their philosophical roots to Elton Mayo, Kurt Lewin, Abraham Maslow, Douglas McGregor, Rensis Likert, and other figures in the human relations and behavioral science school. These "soft-hearted" managers are especially pleased with the “in-process” benefits of improved morale, quality of work-life, and the experience of the community.9

Implicit in the value system of the quality movement is the saying "If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always gotten." This statement reflects the spirit of the childhood rhyme "Good, better, best. Never let it rest until the good gets better, and the better is the best," as well as the Greek ideal of aretaic, or excellence itself, as a virtue.

The Importance of Leadership

A dramatic example of the importance of leadership is the Boeing 737 Max story: Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory, reports when Boeing put profit over quality in the 737 Max, the result was tragedy. The company's 737 Max 8 passenger jet was taken out of service in 2019 after two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed hundreds of people. Faulty software had overridden the pilots' commands, causing the planes to nosedive. How did the world's largest aerospace company that prided itself on engineering prowess fail so greatly? Peter Robinson's book, Flying Blind, describes how company leaders put cost-cutting and financial gain over product quality. A mercenary culture replaced a quality culture through the policies and decisions of leaders. Gertner concludes that the cost of correcting design flaws and training deficiencies will exceed the cost of building a better aircraft from scratch, and this doesn't include immeasurable damage to the company's reputation in the minds of customers and passengers.10

Questions to Consider:

  • What are the leaders in your organization doing to maintain high-quality standards for products and services?
  • What do you recommend to stay or become a quality exemplar?


  1. J. Liker, The Toyota Way (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004); and J. Liker, Toyota Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008).
  2. R. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002); and W. Arnold and J. Plas, The Human Touch (New York: Wiley, 1993).
  3. J. Jablonski, Implementing Total Quality Management (San Diego: Pfeiffer, 1994), p. 41; and B. Creech, The Five Pillars of TQM (New York: Truman Talley, 1995).
  4. T. Peters and R. Waterman, In Search of Excellence (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 249-50.
  5. R. Ford and C. Heaton, "Lessons from Hospitality That Can Serve Anyone" Organizational Dynamics (Summer 2001), pp. 30-47.
  6. D. Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: Avon Books, 1987); and C. Byron, "How Japan Does It," Time (March 30, 1981), p. 57.
  7. Halberstam, The Reckoning; L. Dobyns, "Ed Deming Wants Big Changes and He Wants Them Fast, Smithsonian 21, no. 5 (August 1990), p. 77.
  8. From W. Deming, Out of the Crisis (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000), pp. 23-24; see also W. Deming and J. Orsini, The Essential Deming (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012).
  9. E. Lawler et al., Employee Involvement and Total Quality Management (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992); E. Lawler, The Ultimate Advantage (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992); and E. Lawler, Organize for High Performance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
  10. J. Gertner, The Idea Factory (New York: Penguin Press, 2012); and P. Robison, Flying Blind (New York: Doubleday, 2021).

About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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