Quality and Sustainability Interactions

Sudipta Chatterjee

Program Director (Procurement & SCM)

Quality Management, since its inception more than a century ago, has evolved from ‘Inspection’ to a full-blown competitive strategy. There is hardly any organization in the world today that has not adopted Quality Management practices in some form or other and met with varied levels of success. At this juncture, let us reflect on the contributions of Quality Management beyond the boundaries of an organization.   Over the years, the ambit of Quality expanded from Quality of materials to Quality of products, processes, services, society and ultimately to Quality of Life. But has this Quality movement really had a significant impact on the Quality of Life? It is estimated that around 40 million people are engaged in some form of modern-day slavery. Some of the most reputed global brands have had allegations of serious violations of human rights. Instances of renowned organizations perishing due to accounting malpractices are also widely known. There are numerous instances of organizations adding to all forms of pollution – air, water, noise; often leading to acid rain, lead poisoning, arsenic poisoning, and other serious health hazards.   A scrutiny will reveal that many of these organizations engaged in such unfair practices have had a reputation for good product or service Quality. These incidents, therefore, compel us to ponder – What is the objective and goal of Quality Management? Can an organization have excellent Quality practices in place without any concern for sustainability? Can Quality Management exist without an ethical foundation?  

Sustainability

  Sustainability can be defined as “meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The World is an interconnected system comprising the Environment, the Economy and the Society with all three elements interacting with each other. There would be no concern for the environment when poverty prevails. During social crisis or economic instability, there is no room to think about the future. Sustainability, therefore, not only relates to natural resources, but also to social equity and economic development.  

Quality and Sustainability

  There are several areas where Quality Management and Sustainability have similarities. For example, the success of both initiatives depends on top management commitment. Both approaches are people oriented. Employee empowerment and collaboration are important in both. Each philosophy needs to respect the needs and concerns of stakeholders. Both concepts focus on waste reduction and have considerations of total cost/value.    There are certain areas where these two concepts do not congregate. Sustainability deals in social processes which vary widely based on culture and traditions. Sometimes these processes are not well defined. Moreover, Quality Management does not address the issue of social equity in terms distribution of resources. Ethics is viewed as a critical component of Sustainability whereas Quality Management advocates ethical practices rather silently. Another area of complexity is the idea of anthropocentricity which is the belief that human life is supreme and superior to the non-human ecosystem. This is embedded in most business processes. In Sustainability, the concept of sustainable development is often in contradiction to anthropocentricity. Overcoming this contradiction will call for radical changes in the way we think and behave.  

Developments So Far

  Dr Genichi Taguchi was one of the early pioneers who attempted to link Quality with society by defining Quality in terms of ‘loss to the society’.    The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has often claimed that the main purpose of developing standards is to contribute to sustainable development. In the year 1996, the Environmental Management System standards viz. the ISO 14000 series were published to explicitly promote and recognize initiatives for protecting and managing the environment.   Earlier in 1989, SA8000 certification was introduced by Social Accountability International. It is an auditable certification standard modelled on ISO standards. It is based on the principles of international human rights norms as described in International Labour Organization conventions, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   ISO 26000 standard titled “Guidance for Social Responsibility” was published in the year 2010 to foster the social responsibility of organizations. Recently ISO published a list of about 600 standards which directly or indirectly relate to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.   Business Excellence models like the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award or the EFQM Model incorporate “societal responsibilities” and “societal results”.  Thus, we see that there are several frameworks in both areas and there have been some efforts to link the two philosophies. However, the potential of converging the two remains largely untapped and there is no overarching framework covering all aspects of the two.  

The Roadmap

  Soon, Quality and Sustainability initiatives have to merge together. The two philosophies should not only coexist but also complement one another. However, there are serious challenges to overcome to realize this convergence.    Firstly, the corporate governance structure needs to be redefined. The myopic view of ‘profitability’ needs to be replaced by ‘benefit to society’. This would challenge the core values that drive the organizations today. Leadership philosophies right from the Vision, Mission, policies, and objectives need to be revisited and re-conceived, if necessary.    Processes must be re-engineered to include sustainable practices. New product offerings should be based on ‘green designs’ which promote recycling, reuse and reduction of waste. Human rights must be respected along the entire supply chain. Health, safety, legal, ethical, and environmental considerations should carry the same focus as on commercial considerations.    Sound and transparent accounting principles must be sacrosanct. Fraud control, risk management and business continuity plans must be in place.   The society would no longer be labelled as an ‘interested party’ but a ‘key stakeholder’. The interests of non-human stakeholders also need to be addressed and respected. Corporate leadership teams will have to ‘walk the talk’ and demonstrate unflinching commitment towards these broad spectra of issues.   Maturity of organizations in adopting this holistic framework may be defined in the following scales:  

Independent

Quality viewed as an independent function with focus on enhancing process efficiencies and customer satisfaction. No connection of Quality and Sustainability envisaged.

Cognizant -

Organizations realize that Quality and Sustainability can coexist, but no visible efforts made to connect the two.

Reliant-

Organizations clearly visualize the benefits of harmonizing Quality and Sustainability but initiatives to combine the two are sporadic.

Congruent-

Quality and Sustainability are fully integrated and inseparable. It is time that we construed Dr. Deming’s ‘constancy of purpose’ as planning for holistic or ‘Sustainable Quality ’and adopted this new philosophy in letter and spirt!    
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