The Last Word: Coat Check

“You see things and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I say, ‘Why not?’”-George Bernard Shaw

The words of this 20th century Irish playwright were part of a speech recently given by H. James Harrington, a 50-year veteran of the quality and manufacturing profession and the 2009 Quality Professional of the Year.

“You see things and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I say, ‘Why not?’”-George Bernard Shaw

The words of this 20th century Irish playwright were part of a speech recently given by H. James Harrington, a 50-year veteran of the quality and manufacturing profession. Harrington was giving his acceptance speech as the 2009 Quality Professional of the Year during the 2009 Quality Measurement Conference in Orlando, FL, and held the audience in rapt attention. Harrington has an impressive résumé and a history as being a champion of both manufacturing and quality. A more complete detailing of his accomplishments can be found in the May 2009 issue of Quality Magazine and online at, where you also can hear an exclusive interview with him on Q-Cast Podcasts.

Rather than extol the virtues of a particular quality program or manufacturing approach in his Orlando speech, Harrington exhibited why he was named Quality Professional of the Year. He challenged attendees to dream the impossible and then set out to accomplish it. He encouraged them toward excellence, not mere improvement. And, he warned them that if they did not dare to seek a “better way,” that America’s competitors could and would do so. Harrington impressed these lessons and more on every person in the room.

I think it fair to say that Harrington, and other giants in quality, are not against programs and techniques that bring incremental improvement per se, however, I believe they would argue these are mere tools and not the goals themselves. When such tools as Six Sigma and lean manufacturing were originally developed, they could rightfully be called “groundbreaking,” but they have become methods de rigueur with their widespread use.

H. James Harrington, Quality Magazine’s 2009 Professional of the Year. Source: Friendship Photography

The economic downturn of the past eight months has been an opportunity for every person in manufacturing to reassess his company’s operations, market approach, methods and all other aspects of business. Besides identifying means to reduce costs, such an exercise also can be used for unlocking opportunities, tapping into people’s ideas and finding “a better way.” Look beyond incremental improvements to discover new paradigms.

Harrington encourages companies to have passion for one’s job, show creativity and pride in every task, risk with the possibility of failing, embrace change, and “lead like the rest of the world is looking over your shoulder, because they are.” These are Harrington’s definitions of true excellence.

These definitions may seem cliché, but they contain a deep truth. A company’s self-assessment and efforts to create genuine breakthroughs will put it ahead of its competitors.

The American business landscape is full of examples of true manufacturing and quality breakthroughs: Apple Computer, Intel, IBM, Ford Motor Co., Motorola, Universal Fastener Co. and more. Some of these companies continue to be global leaders because they continue to reinvent themselves or find breakthrough ways of doing business. Others were leaders, but have succumbed to second-place status because they stopped serious self-assessment, became fearful of failure, settled for mediocrity or forgot that excellence is a moving target, requiring one to always strive harder than before.

Harrington points out that, “Sometimes continuous improvement will not do it [help reach goals] and we need to redefine things in order to accomplish a real breakthrough.” He uses the analogy of a suit purchased for a small boy that at first is too big, but eventually must be let out to its limits as the boy grows. “You can’t put a man in the coat he wore as a boy,” said Harrington.

What size jacket are you and your company wearing? Does it fit as a tailored jacket does, or is it embarrassingly too small to do the job?

Share your thoughts with me at, or share your thoughts with other Quality Magazine readers at the Quality Magazine LinkedIn Group page at

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