Thursday, September 13, 2007

Corporations, Technique, and Quality

This is the final article in the three-part series started with "On Quality and Art" and "Technique, Art, and Quality". Understanding this part requires you to accept the differentiation between quality and Quality, with a capital "Q", explained in the first article.

Companies are capable of building a product with quality, the kind of reassuring knowledge that a product is free of problems and does not fall apart when it is picked from a shelf or driven from a showroom. However, managing product quality is different than an individual's ability to marshal the primordial Quality into products, which brings me to the first question:

"Are corporations capable of preserving that Quality?"

Preserving Quality means keeping as much of it in the final product, from the moment the initial product design, or Art, is conceptualized by an individual until the moment it hits the stores. The word "individual" is used intentionally here1.

The creation of a product involves several people over a large span of time. As explored in the previous articles, that imperfect process is bound to take away some of the original design Quality. In that sense, the mastering of techniques required to manufacture something is fundamental to preserve Quality in the finished product.

Another limiting factor is the degree of individual awareness about the original design premise, lest a combination of masterful execution for different production steps could yield a product that does not correspond to the designer's vision.

Quality control as a technique

Quality control is the process used to ensure that product or process attributes are kept within established quality parameters. This dull definition cannot make justice to the dullness of the activity in itself, but quality control is a "Technique" after all, and as such, should be mastered to the point where it can be executed without conscious thought.

A perfect way of making quality control a hindrance make it visible. When a project contributor is requested to see quality control as a separate activity, maybe by entering additional data into a separate system, his attention is diverted from his primordial purpose of building the finished product, which brings me to another assertion.

Project contributors should only be made aware of quality control when their work does not meet the quality criteria, not before.

A different kind of Quality Control

What about managing the Quality, with a capital "Q"? Even with my attempts to define Quality - which pale in comparison to those by Robert Pirsig - its parameters are still highly subjective to be measurable and verifiable. A quality control team would be mystified while trying to determine how much of the original designer's view still exist at each stage of the production process.

As you are guessing, here comes another assertion:

Quality Control is the responsibility of the original designer, who must ensure that his original vision is preserved through the development process and in the finished product.

Only the designer himself has enough, if limited, rational view of the original Quality built into the design, which leads to the next assertion:

Companies, as a matter of technique, must have processes that support the verification of the original "Quality" in the product, even at the risk of granting unlimited power to the product designer.

A different production model

These philosophical thoughts are impractical within the context of hierarchical structure. Granting unlimited powers to an individual over the result of dozens of interconnected tasks performed by dozens of different people requires a rare combination of skills.

Such an individual would have to be able to channel inspiration from the primordial Quality and, at the same time, work under the governance of a quality control process; he would also have to be able to objectify his inspiration before he could verify its presence during the production process; and finally, he should have a fair mind to withstand the corrupting force of unlimited power.

And for the ultimate question...

Are corporations capable of Quality?
Only to the extent that those rare individuals discussed in the previous section can exist. On the bright side, most corporations are still capable of creating good quality products, threading a difficult path of compromises when it comes to Quality.

As a matter of quality, the degree of Quality preserved during a production process is subjective, but somewhat quantifiable by the original designer. To conclude this series, a parting thought:

Quality, with a capital "Q", can be managed within a complex product creation process.


1 Even when multiple people collaborate in the design of a product, the organization is such as that individuals work under the supervision of a chief designer to elaborate on design aspects in their field of expertise. As examples, the acclaimed designs for the Apple iPod and the Motorola Razor are reportedly associated with the vision of individuals (Steve Jobs and Roger Jellicoe, respectively.)

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