2008 – Joseph Juran, quality guru
Joseph Juran, who died last week at the age of 103, was
the last of the great statistical gurus who established
the quality movement in business and helped to transform
Japanese production after the Second World War.
I visited him at his home in Connecticut in the summer
of 1999 when he was still working on his memoirs, having
only retired from the lecture circuit a few years earlier.
We talked about his time spent working as a statistical
analyst at the Hawthorne works of Western Electric on the
outskirts of Chicago during the 1920s and 30s.
He was there during the prohibition era when gangsters
were fighting each other for control of the underground
trade in alcohol. Mobsters such as Al Capone were running
gambling dens, including a casino just across the road from
the Hawthorne factory.
Juran told me he would visit the casino during his lunch
breaks and play the roulette wheel. He noticed that the
operator’s arm had such a repetitive action that it
improved the odds of winning for certain numbers. He used
the observation successfully to make a financial killing
at the table but, sensibly, did not continue the system.
Perhaps his best known contribution to the workplace –
and not unrelated to this casino observation - was what
he called the “Pareto Principal” now better
known as the 80/20 rule. This holds that most effects come
from relatively few causes.
Later he acknowledge that the influence for this rule
had less to do with Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian economist
after whom it was named, and more to do with the work of
Max Otto Lorenz whose “Lorenz curve” displayed
the deviation of a sample from the standard.
Juran used this observation when tackling waste, arguing
that it was more important initially to concentrate on the
“vital few” operations in manufacturing, rather
than the “trivial many.”
What has now become an accepted approach in management
was not well understood by many businesses even forty years
ago. When Juran visited Rolls-Royce, in the UK during the
1960s he told the company he could halve its waste costs
in five years but his ideas were ignored.
He called it a lost opportunity. “In this company
the way for a man to work his way to the top was to increase
sales. Reducing costs in the factories was seen [at the
time] as dry drudgery that wouldn’t interest most
managers. I was dealing with a caste system, and the Samurai
at the top were the people able to identify sales.”
His mention of the old Japanese social order was deliberate
because it was in Japan during the 1950s where, with W Edwards
Deming, he had been able to exert his greatest influence.
While his lectures on quality control in the US had been
attended by relatively junior managers, in Japan they attracted
the chief executives of its largest manufacturing companies.
For all his statistical abilities, Juran was instrumental
in emphasising quality control as good management rather
than as a statistical tool, even though a series of 1980s
fads such as “total quality management” owe
something top him for their inspiration.
But it was the principles behind his thinking that mattered
more than the labels attached to the various systems he
influenced. Juran rejected a “zero defects”
approach to production that envisaged a faultless process.
His graduated approach would influence the Six Sigma process
that aims to improve quality over time.
As a result, today there appears to be a broader understanding
that quality needs to be seen as continuous improvement
rather than some project-length initiative.
It’s telling, perhaps, that although much of his
work and that of Deming has become entrenched within modern
management approaches, many of the symptoms of industrial
decline that they identified remain with us today.
Deming, for example, berated a lack of constancy of purpose
towards improvement of products and services, an emphasis
on short-term profits, evaluations of individual performance,
job-hopping by managers and managing by concentrating principally
on metrics without considering unknown variables.
His views would put him at odds with current management
orthodoxy that has elevated the annual performance appraisal
to something akin to a human MOT test.
At the same time many so-called talent management systems
are deliberately hopping their high potential managers from
job to job.
If this tells us anything it is that management ideas and
management complaints tend to go in cycles. What seems like
a good idea today, did not necessarily look so good 40 years
ago. Juran subscribed to this theory that certain organisational
thinking runs in cycles. He noted, for example, that the
ancient Egyptians had run quality inspections on the building
blocks used to create the pyramids. Juran’s approach,
however, was to look at all the work processes from conception
to the finished goods.
His was a more holistic view of management that appreciated
the nuances of work and the influences of human relationships.
He understood that management and good work involved something
more than the scores on a tick box form.
One of Juran’s strengths was to appreciate the human
sides of management. He rejected, for example, Deming’s
assertion that fear was an inhibitor in the workplace. Juran
argued that “fear can bring out the best in people.”
It’s possible that both could have been right.
Fear is a significant source of motivation in the workplace
– the fear of being late with a deadline, of letting
down your boss, your colleagues or a customer. But constant
fear – fear without relief or any way of handling
the fear - can be corrosive in the way that it promotes
Juran was in his mid-nineties when I met him but he was
still scheduling his days as work programmes. Peter Drucker
did the same well in to his 90s. Neither he nor Juran were
enthusiastic about the idea of retirement.
“When I go, please let me go at my word processor,”
said Juran. I’m not sure whether he had his wish but
there was no denying his industry at the time of our meeting.
It’s a testament to the quality of his ideas that
he did not outlive the usefulness of his thinking that will
be his lasting legacy.
See also: Management