A fable about quality - I know it when I see it (John Guaspari)

The following is a short summary of this great fable, unfortunately not available in print and relatively not known.

The book was written by John Guaspari and published in 1985.

I had to order it through a private bookstore that had it ordered for me.

The book can be ordered from Amazon using this link. The price is only $9.95.

I hope that the summary does not have too many quality defects (punctuation errors) :)


Punctuation Inc. was a very successful corporation. They had a broad line of products like commas, apostrophes, periods, dashes, brackets, etc. All their clients were thrilled by the changes that the Punctuation Inc. products brought to their documents.

Punctuation Inc. had not only lots of great products but also a lot of competitors on the market. Their competition was just imitating their products without being able to match the innovation, design and genius of the Punctuation Inc. products.

In time, more and more competitors appeared on the market. Some of them were specialized like Excite Inc. (specialized in exclamation points) or Interrogation Inc. (specialized in question marks). These companies and their products would be popular for a while but disappear eventually leaving Punctuation Inc. to be still the place to go to for punctuation products.

One day, THE BOSS of Punctuation Inc. noticed in the quarterly reports another rival company. The rival's name was Process Inc. and they had the second place on the market for 4 quarters now. THE BOSS and  his staff thought initially that Process Inc. is just another of their rivals that do not create quality products and disappear after some time from the market.

This did not happen however as Process Inc. continued to be the second on the market for a few more quarters.

THE BOSS started to get worried. He did some market research by checking if clients buy in stores Punctuation Inc. or Process Inc. products. He found out that the clients prefer the Process Inc. products 
because they are simpler, working better and having better quality than the Punctuation Inc. products. When asked how they define quality, all clients could say was "I KNOW IT WHEN I SEE IT".

How could THE BOSS understand this definition of quality and put it in practice? He and his staff have always done high quality work and always cared a lot about the quality of their products.

After lots of thinking, THE BOSS had finally an idea.

He organized a meeting with all his staff. He told everybody that he knows what they have to do  for getting better quality of the products. That was to try harder and do better.

These suggestions did not have unfortunately the effect that THE BOSS expected will happen on his staff. They did not quite understand how to do better and were puzzled on "try harder". Didn't they do their best in the past?

The result of the meeting was that the morale of Punctuation Inc.'s employees went down and so did the market share of the company very soon.

THE BOSS understood that something else is needed. The quality problem was of course related to the defects found in the Punctuation Inc. products. Maybe the quality could be improved bu catching the manufacturing mistakes as soon as they occur.

In order to do this, lots of product inspections would be needed and lots of new workers to be hired (inspectors). The plan was to have 1 inspector for every worker from the manufacturing department.
THE BOSS's 2 vice-presidents were named as managers of the inspection department and manufacturing & design department.

The quality of the products will be overpowered with more inspections!

So this is what they did.

The results of the new change were still negative. The market share went down further, same the company profits and the morale.

The managers of the manufacturing and inspections department were blaming each other for the low quality. One of these managers was blaming the other for not doing enough checking, the other manager was defending his department's errors by explaining that this is why they have inspectors, so they can catch the errors.

Nobody was assuming any responsibility for quality.

THE BOSS was more puzzled than ever on the quality dilemma. After much thinking, he arrived to some conclusions.

The first one was that quality was a matter of survival.

The second conclusion was that Try Harder, Do Better was not the answer and the same for more inspections. The only thing that more inspections did was to increase the number of defects.

The last conclusion was that the only thing left to change was the system.

More time passed.

One day, THE BOSS realized that what is needed is a new mind-set.
The new mindset would replace the inspection with prevention.

The new mindset change happened by keeping all existing employees, both the manufacturing workers and the inspectors. All  inspectors were converted in preventors. Who is in a better position to figure out 
how to prevent defects than people who are highly skilled at spotting defects, than the people who know the process that caused the defects?

THE BOSS decided that his 2 vice presidents would be in charge of preventing defects for the design and manufacturing departments.

Punctuation Inc. started to improve the quality of the products using the new mindset, the morale started to go up, the productivity was up and the market share stopped falling.

Everybody was very happy for a while expecting that all quality problems are gone ...

Until one day when a client came to the Punctuation Inc. office with product complains. On his tax return, a + changed into a - as the vertical line fell down and in one of his letter, the ! changed into | as the . fell down too.

THE BOSS asked his vice presidents to explain these product defects, The VPs blamed each other as follows: the VP of design prevention said that all issues are related to manufacturing and the VP of manufacturing prevention said that all issues are related to design :)

These 2 VPs and their departments did not work together at all.

THE BOSS was more puzzled than ever. They did implement so many changes that were supposed to help but none of them really helped.

How was it possible that there were still quality problems after so many initiatives?

The Punctuation Inc. customers kept telling them about product quality issues and every time this happened, the Punctuation Inc. people went back to check their requirements, tight tolerances and records that  proved that they were doing everything right about quality. How could the clients still say that the quality was not good?

THE BOSS finally realized that even if Punctuation Inc. has product requirements, tight tolerances and quality records, the clients are not interested in any of these.

The clients are only interested that the products do what they expect them to do, nothing else.

Punctuation Inc. got it backwards thinking that they are the experts who can rely on their intuition for the quality of their products.

The clients are the only ones entitled to rely on their intuition when it comes to knowing what quality is.

The clients pay Punctuation Inc. to be precise and rigorous about the client's definition of quality, to determine what the client's requirements are and then to do what it takes to meet these requirements.

This is the end of the story.

THE BOSS finally understood what the clients mean when saying that quality is "I know it when I see it".

He got awarded as the Quality Man Of The Year :)