Earlier in the week I introduced the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award, and my doubts about it — yesterday I posted a quick summary of my opinion.

It is a serious subject and deserves a serious answer — I do believe it is time to get specific.

What is the Baldridge award?

According to it’s homepage, the mission of the Baldridge program is to “improve the competitiveness and performance of U.S. organizations.” Mr. Borawski defined it by saying that:

The Baldrige Program serves to:

1) Identify and recognize role model organizations
2) Establish criteria for evaluating improvement efforts
3) Disseminate and share best practices

To put this into my own words, I suppose the best, most competitive companies have ideas that can be used by other companies. So we should find those organizations, hold them up, and share their ideas. If everyone were to share these ideas, why, we would see increased productivity, which means more goods and services created, which means an improvement in quality of life in our communities and increased competitiveness abroad — everybody wins. Sounds good to me, eh?

Except … wait.

Exactly who is deciding what ‘best’ means?

In Wall Street, we have one way of deciding who’s best: The wisdom of the crowd. People buy shares in companies they like, and sell stock if they do not like them. This creates ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’

Likewise, on main street we have another kind of voting: The pocketbook. People purchase services from companies they like, and can complain about or boycott companies they don’t like. If enough people stop buying your stuff, you go out of business; if lots of people buy your stuff (and you don’t mess up along the way), you can become Wal*Mart. (Or at least Target, maybe?)

I call these sorts of systems “market based” because they allow people to vote with their wallet. This means a company needs to sell goods or services people want at a price they can afford — or the company goes out of business.

The Baldridge Award replaces this measure with it’s own wisdom. Now, for public service organizations (a police station) and non-profit organizations, you might have to do something like that.

But that’s not the point Matt, sharing of best practices is!

The ASQ (and most other Baldridge defenders) are quick to point out that the program is not about the award, it is about sharing of best practice.

ahh, there is that word. “Best Practices.” I have to tell you honestly, that term creeps me out.

Best practices is not an engineering term.

Engineers of any stripe, software or mechanical, do not talk about best practices. They talk about tradeoffs, about losing something less important to our group at this point in time in order to get something more important to our group at this point in time.

The groups and the points in time might change, so no practice is ever “best.”

In fact, I belong to a group called the context-driven school of software testing that censures the term best practices.

By censure, I mean outlaw. If you use the term at one of our conferences, you’ll likely be told to use another term. (More likely, your submission won’t be accepted, and you’ll get an email explaining why.)

When I hear the term “best practices”, what comes to mind is marketing, sales, hype, and sloppy thinking.

Sure, the baldridge program might share practices – but are the cash-handling practices for a bank going to apply for a gas station? How about for a one-person small engine repair shop?

It’s likely that they will not – that implementing the practices can cause more harm than good.

What is the criteria for the program?

The criteria for the business side of the Baldridge award (“performance excellence”) is a seventy-seven page PDF that provides a framework for evaluating a business. The evaluation terms include things like “Measurement, Analysis, and Knowledge Management”, “Workforce Focus”, “Customer Focus”, and “Results.”

Now this is where I have to get a little personal and base my opinions on my experiences, just a little bit. You see the Baldridge program does have a relatively small budget – so to evaluate companies it relies on volunteer “examiners.” Of all the aspects of the award, I probably like the volunteer/examiner program the best.

Ideally, I should become an examiner and take the training myself – but I’ve met enough examiners and talked to them to have some idea of what the program entails. Suffice to say that the program evaluates companies according to a value system – to see if the companies work is stable, predictable, and measured enough that it can experiment with a change and known numerically if the results are sufficient.

The examples I have seen were around hospital wait time, and time-to-execute on certain recurring operations, like perhaps a blood draw. Yet there are significant challenges with measuring knowledge work, which is an increasingly large part of the American economy. Even if the work is repeatable, I might question if it is valuable — for example, Barnes and Nobles had a great, stable, repeatable system to produce books in 1995 … right up until Amazon.com came along with a disruptive innovation and took away their business model.

That idea of disruptive innovation being more and more dangerous to a business that becomes more and more highly specialized — isn’t mine alone — it is a hallmark of modern risk management.

So sure, running your company “by the numbers” is one ideal of business management, but it’s not the only one, and it bothers me that our government would institutionalize it. (This is probably the one area I know least about the program, but I am open to learning more, and I calls ’em like I see ’em.)

Should our government be doing this?

I may not be a constitutional scholar, but I’ve read the thing and I see that the government has certain powers elaborated in the constitution and those not elaborated are delegated to the states. I do realize that recently, as a nation, we have not paid a whole lot of attention to the document, especially it’s intent. Further, I realize that the Federal Government is granted the right to regulate interstate commerce, and that power is used to justify several large government organizations like OSHA, and NIST, compared to which Baldridge is a drop in the bucket.

Further, our Federal government is one of the world’s largest employers; I think we employ something like two million people, and that’s before adding government contractors like LockHeed-Martin.

On the business side, I can’t see a reason the Federal government would see spreading performance excellence “best practice” as within it’s role. The appeal to ‘national interest’ seems to go against the historical reason we exist as a country — we exist because we wanted the government out of our business. I
n addition, it seems to smack of centralized planning to me — something the russians tried after the second world war — to “decide” the “right way” to do things and to spread that out to every company, instead of letting the free market decide.

It didn’t work out that great for the Russians.

We need less of this, not more. According to my value system, we need lless scripted behavior and more thinking — the group we need to hold up as exemplars is most likely the liberal arts tradition.

But that’s my opinion. I don’t need government money to compete; give me a microphone called the internet and let people respond if they want to.


By now you realize that I’m not keen on the Baldridge award. Of course we should de-fund it. More than that, we should ask how a program like that ever got to be funded in the first place!

But that brings an interesting question. If Quality is what Paul Borawski calls “the set the concepts, techniques, and tools that connect good intention with realized and sustainable outcomes“, how is it possible that we have such a different understanding the role and benefits of the Baldridge award? Wouldn’t you hope we came to the same conclusion, not conclusions that were wildly different?

This is a contradiction and it’s probably wise to check our assumptions.

The simplest explanation I can think of is that Paul and I have different values; that he believes that more centralized planning (or “sharing” if you have a lighter touch) combined with management by the numbers will lead to better outcomes for the United States, or even the world.

I’ve made my case against this worldview.

I would be pleased to see a strong reply; I’m interested in the discussion, or, possibly, an explanation of what I am missing – the benefits that the Baldrige programs adds that I am failing to take into account.

Either way, as a tiny little niche industry, I suspect we ‘quality’ people have a fair bit of work cut out for ourselves.

It’s an exciting time to be a tester.