Tony Gurr

Why can’t educators just learn to speak “QUALITY” already? (Part One)

In Quality & Institutional Effectiveness on 14/03/2011 at 10:57 am

“…there is no definition of quality…you know it when you find it!”

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I’m a member of an on-line forum with a group called the American Society for Quality. We have some lively discussions and chew the fat on allthingsquality.

One recent discussion was entitled:

What is the one quality tool (or two tools) you just can’t do without?

When I first saw it, I thought “cool” – this should learn me a lot. OK – I did wonder about the emphasis on “tools” rather than “approaches” or “philosophical underpinnings”.

But thought, hey, we can learn from anything.

Here we go – a sample of the favourite tools mentioned (all alphabetised so you can “google” them easily):

  • Automation of management systems
  • Capability analysis
  • Control charts
  • Flow charts
  • Gap analysis.
  • GR&R
  • Histograms
  • Interrelationship techniques (to identify drivers & outcomes)
  • Pareto analysis and charts
  • Process mapping
  • RCA (the “5 Whys”)
  • Risk assessment activities
  • Root cause analysis
  • Risk planning
  • Simplified QFD, followed by simplified FMEA
  • SIPOC (Supplier, Input, Process, Output and Customer)
  • Stakeholder analysis (to determine key “influencers” and “influencees”)
  • Standardization and knowledge capture
  • Statistical process control
  • The 8D process (for corrective action)
  • The interrelationship diagraph
  • The Ishikawa diagram
  • Trending analysis
  • Value stream mapping

There are some people who try to “flog their wares” (or “market” the things they love) on the discussion board (naughty, naughty) so we also got things like:

  • The Qmap (to enable the creation of a fully functioning QMS and cater for all quality improvement requirements including Lean and Six Sigma).
  • PathMaker & iPathMaker by Skymark – it has all the basic tools in one suite
  • Q-Pulse

And, my “personal favourite”:

  • Checklists – a comprehensive list of important or relevant actions or steps to be taken in a specific order.

As I looked over the suggestions that were pouring onto the discussion board, I realised that for many educators my friends at the American Society for Quality were simply “speaking quality” as a 99th language.

When we dig deeper into the quality lexicon, or even a take cursory glance at the literature on quality or quality assurance (QA) many of us would be forgiven for thinking that we were reading Chinese or Quichua!

I tested this with a couple of people I know (sent them the list) – and the overwhelming response was a resounding –

Now, you know why we hate all this “quality nonsense”, Tony!

These are “educators” talking.


It’s true educators have never really been “fans” of qualityor even anything that has the slight whiff of “business”. Try mentioning the phrase “institutional effectiveness” to a group of them at a conference (you’ll be lucky to get away with your life…)

But, this is not their fault!

Sadly, many quality consultants” in education have defined quality and quality assurance by reference to the amount of documentation (that nobody reads) and comprehensiveness of planning and evaluation systems across all major aspects of the institution (mostly in terms of “external accountability”).

This emphasis on the products of audits, assessment, accreditation and external examining has become increasingly burdensome for many educators.

Rather than seeing quality as a continuous quest for performance improvement, many teachers and academics have been “learned” to equate quality with:

  • “little more than an exercise in documentation production”
  • “disengagement from learning and teaching”
  • “a lack of trust”

And, even worse:

  • “ritualism and tokenism”
  • “game playing”
  • “the culture of if-it-ain’t-broke”

Harvey highlighted these in some of his excerpts from interviews with educators:

Everything has to be documented. All the marking has to be moderated with written reports. We spend a lot of time remarking other people’s stuff and all for the sake of a QAA visit. Every new initiative has to be seen in terms of how it will be seen at the next QAA visit. We have to keep attendance registers to show that we are trying to monitor non-attendance. All this adds up to the administrative burden and creates systems that don’t make a hoot of difference to what students get. No money comes in to improve things, its just pressure to make us do more bureaucracy. I haven’t seen any real changes since the last visit: it’s all cosmetic (name withheld)

We lost three staff recently and we all have to work more contact hours, which means that research has no chance. We have had to abandon some of the original modules because there’s no one to teach them. My availability to students is minimal – we gave up essay tutorials some time back and there’s no chance of getting the end of semester coursework back to students within three weeks if I mark it properly. And yet I can’t tell QAA any of this. We have to pretend everything is fine even though we know it isn’t (name withheld).

Many of these challenges have arisen because the language used by quality experts is not how educators “talk” and because many of the “tools” used to improve quality just appear to have been engineered “off-world”.

To be fair to my friends at the American Society for Quality, there were some very down-to-earth and educator-friendly “favourites” also mentioned:

  • Having skilled people who are willing to learn from others and from their own actions (thank you, Nick)
  • Solid interpersonal skills with a dash of humor. If you are unable to effectively engage people in a meaningful way it is irrelevant what supporting tools/metrics, etc. are used. That is not to say that tools are not important, but only after you have successfully broken through the skepticism and forged a trusting relationship. Finally…TEAMWORK (thank you, James)
  • The Brain…. a combination of critical, lateral and logical thinking processes (thank you, Rolando)

And, probably my two favouritest:

  • a simple A-3 sheet – to ensure proper problem definition and more (thank you, Joe)
  • my eyes (thank you, Len)


Some of you may have noticed that I actually started this post with a quote from the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. This may have looked a little “strange” (especially for those of you that may not know that Pirsig’s 1974 book had, in fact, little to say about Buddhist practices or how to maintain motorcycles – or “QA”).

However, Pirsig’s notion that quality is “the result of care” is something that educators can seriously relate to – “feel”, even.

It is certainly a big improvement of discussions on statistical process control, value stream mapping and interrelationship diagraphs!


When thinking about quality (or, “institutional effectiveness” – don’t hit me) – the key maxim to remember is “fitness-for-purpose”.

The principles are equally simple:

Quality is not just about the “tools” and it is not just about simply having a “QA system” and stacks of documentation

Quality is a means, not an end

  • Quality is about improvement
  • Quality is about a transformational mindset or culture
  • Quality is an on-going process of building and sustaining relationships

Perhaps, more educators would find quality to be sexier and fun if quality consultants learned to speak “learning” first and adapted their “tools” to help teachers do more with what they knowand do best!

  1. I think what you have come across here is a group of people who are thinkers and well educated (the teachers) coming up against an industry that has a lot of fads with fancy names. When you look deeper you see that a lot of these fancy names are just marketing tool to differentiate themselves for others. I think your colleagues are right on the money. Quality needs a stronger focus on what is to be achieved and not just the methods.
    Sadly, many quality experts don’t even know why their methods work.
    I think your experienced teaching friends have great skill at detecting people who talk like they know what’s going on, but actually done, and they can sense this in the quality consultants who they encounter. Thus many of their comments are exactly right. I think quality consultants need to do much more than learn to speak learning!

  2. Thank you Clint – a valid point. I think in our “rush” to “sell” quality to our schools, colleges and universities too many people have tried to make a name (or a job) for themselves. In setting themselves “apart” they have used the “wrong lens”, given people the wrong impression and “learned” them badly.

    I just hope the majority of consultants are not like this – but you have given me a good idea for my follow-up post. Thank you for the comment and the inspiration 🙂


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