The Birth of a Unique Public-Private Partnership

Posted by Dawn Marie Bailey

On June 8, 1987, Business Week published a special report on quality:

Improving quality requires nothing less than an upheaval in corporate culture. . . . Truly improving quality is a long, hard slog, and it frequently carries a steep up-front cost. . . . But the initial investment in equipment and training is well worth making. Eventually, the savings from not having to make repairs or to pay off warranties or to settle liability suits far exceed the costs of a quality program. And the biggest returns by far come when productivity, market share, and profits rise.

But in June 1987, there was no U.S. national quality program. There was a group of “purely techies” at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) working on measurement and standards services intended to help the manufacturing industry meet its challenges.

And there was growing sentiment across the United States that the country and its corporations needed to address their quality problems. Manufacturers were concerned, Congress was concerned, President Reagan was concerned, and the current Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige was concerned, saying, “What we need are some manufacturers and engineers calling the shots if America is to compete effectively in world markets. . . . We have to encourage American executives to get out of their boardrooms and onto the factory floor to learn how their products are made and how they can be made better.”

Learn how these worlds collided on the national stage, with scientific thinkers, labor leaders, CEOs, politicians, academicians, quality experts, state and local leaders, and others coming together to form an entirely unique public-private partnership, with cross-sector thinking, broad assessments, and other collaborations that had never been tried before.

Read how the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program was born from the people who brought it all together.

What are your earliest memories and stories of the Baldrige Program? Feel free to share your reflections here.

Baldrige staff, August 20, 2012


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3 Responses to The Birth of a Unique Public-Private Partnership

  1. Bryan Zak says:

    My earliest memories of the Baldrige Criteria were of how then the Air Force was using the criteria to begin a their journey. The criteria served as a common roadmap.

  2. Dawn Bailey says:

    Excerpts from an e-mail from Jack Swaim (posted here with his permission):

    Several of us have been privileged to share ongoing discussions with Curt about the early days of the Program–and particularly about the key turning points in its development, launch, growth, and challenges/opportunities over time. Even more interesting are our ongoing discussions regarding comparisons between then and now, in terms of the forces that promote and endorse (or vice versa) the Program and therefore what actions we can consider.

    About the arm wrestling story: We were in a very remote setting of the applicant organization; this was one of a number of small sites where physical strength and stamina were an absolute job requirement–and a source of local pride. During the short welcome briefing that was provided to Curt and me, our host pointed with pride to a plaque on the wall honoring one of the workmen as the state’s arm-wrestling champion. The champion stood up and was recognized with great applause. The audience felt very confident in his presence, although they were clearly on edge about the site visit. Maybe he was only 250 lb., but he looked like he could have weighed 300+ and played NFL football. Then it was my turn to introduce the Curt and myself, and to lay out what would happen during the next few hours. On the spur of the moment, I made the risky decision to surprise the applicant and Curt with [hopefully] a little humor, in order to help break the ice and to relieve the inevitable tension that is felt in a site-visited organization.

    So, right at the outset I told them that it was quite a coincidence that joining me was the state arm-wrestling champion from the state of Maryland. I don’t know who was more surprised–the applicant folks or Curt. But the applicant folks quickly looked around the room and their facial expressions said, “Oh no, we prepared to answer so many questions…but we didn’t prepare for this. And who is this musclebound person?” And Curt’s expression also said, “Oh no! This is not what was scripted at all!” Then a split second later, the room erupted in laughter, and Curt was such a good sport to jump in on the joke with a witty but self-deprecating response. Several days later, it was another fun surprise for our site visit team when the company CEO made his comments at the close of the site visit.

    This story epitomizes one of Curt’s lasting role-model characteristics as an effective leader. It is widely known and recognized that he worked tirelessly, and to a degree out of his comfort zone, in order to set up the Program. HIs work ethic and his staying true to the principles of improving US competitiveness were unparalleled, and those characteristics inspired countless others to participate and contribute at a higher level. We know about his dedication and what a significant impact the Program has had and continues to have in and beyond the US. But what may not be quite as well known is his easy ability to use humor. He is a natural at using humor to break tensions, and also–on occasion–to use humor to make people become aware of the silliness of certain debates. I’m convinced that his gift of humor is one of the secret strengths that enabled him to successfully navigate the uncertain political and business/education/healthcare/nonprofit waters in the 1980’s and 1990’s on behalf of improving the competitiveness of the US.

  3. Pingback: Baldrige: Answering the Call for Competitiveness | Blogrige The Official Baldrige Blog

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