The Quality Movement and Information Technology
In the 1070's after the first oil shock, the West suddenly realised that Japanese cars were grabbing an ever increasing share of the market as they were not only more economical to acquire, run and maintain but were also more durable and almost hassle free. As one American friend put it the US cars used to suck in comparison.
This prompted a close scrutiny of the Japanese management methods and soon Kanban, 5S, JIT, Quality Circles, Kaizen, Kakushan, and TQM became part of Management jargon and folklore in the west. It was also discovered that the Japanese had indeed learnt the theory of Quality from an American called Deming who had found the Japanese a much more receptive audience than his fellow countrymen.
The conceptual foundations of the Quality movement can be traced back to several enlightened thinkers including Joseph Juran (whose father Jacob Juran was an emigre from eastern Europe) who had summarized his years of experience in various inspection departments of several US Industries (including Western Electric of Hawthorne Experiments fame) in the various books that he wrote including the seminal Quality Handbook.
The Theory of Quality was propounded when there were no computers in sight, but the symbiotic relationship of process maturity and improvements in a continuous upward spiral was established beyond all reasonable doubt. The centrality of motivational aspects or the desire for improvement was dealt with clearly and hence the critical role played by the support infrastructure in stitching together an improvement deliverable was thought to be the key to a project's degree of success.
Desire for improvement also has the inextricateably linked ownership imperative. There has to be someone in flesh and bone who has to champion any improvement initiative without which the concept of desire cannot really get grounded. Most IT projects exhibit serious weaknesses in this respect as the functional heads who should be leading the charge (as it is their processes which are being improved) are often seen as unenthusiastic co-passengers who are getting dragged along on an unfamiliar trip.
Even in those rare occassions where the ownership element has been structured into the project, the battle is far from over. Desire of improvement can be quickly stoked or doused by the quality of soft and hard infrastructure support available to the evangelists.
Recent developments like Knowledge Management, Collaboration environments, Search Tools, Business Intelligence Applications, Employee Portals and the ubiquitous E-Mail and Messaging utilities go a long way in filling the gaps in the hard infrastructure.
What would definitely take a much longer time if at all, are the softer infrastructural factors like respect for people, giving space for cultural dissimilarities, discouraging oneupmanship and shooting from the hip, working with facts and data not opinions, fostering creativity, tolerance for failures while honestly trying and alignment from the heart.
Technological progress would of course keep rolling on and even if an organization manages to put in place the hard infrastructure it would perhaps be sufficient to bull doze competition and get ahead of the race as it is difficult to spot any shining examples of successful soft infrastructure implementations in the modern services industry sectors, though we have all seen the impact of this model practiced in the far east in manufacturing earlier.
Technology companies as usual are vying with each other to to provide significantly improved offerings in the collaboration and knowledge management space. This is also closely linked to the open software movement where it would be possible to provide access to existing proprietary applications and platforms by installing middlewares on the desktops. These middlewares would in addition also provide development interfaces for new generation applications with inbuilt portability which would considerably enhance the collaboration experience.
Hopefully with these developments getting into production, the improvement cycles would get further compacted and the early adopters would open up the competitive gap even further. The whole lanscape is in for some very exciting times indeed.