"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The answer: "practice, practice, practice." Likewise, the best way to get to Washington, D.C., for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award is, "quality, quality, quality." Don't ask me how I scored an invitation to this year's Baldrige Awards ceremony-I am convinced it was a computer glitch.

The Baldrige Award has been the subject of both praise and ridicule since its inception in 1987. Deriders say that the quickest way to go out of business is to win the Baldrige Award. Untrue. Of the 58 award recipients, eight no longer exist as they did when they won. Of those eight, two simply changed names; the remaining six were acquired by other top name companies. It has been said that the Award favors service, education and healthcare companies. Untrue. Half of the awards have gone to manufacturers.

Baldrige is one way of measuring a company's knowledge and control of its process-core quality concepts. It requires measurands and audited procedures. Many who have won the Award have said the guidelines are more stringent than any other standard or accreditation process. Indeed, many companies who do not compete for the Award use the Baldrige criteria as an internal quality standard.

President George W. Bush, in his address to the Award recipients, said that winning the Baldrige requires quality to be part of a company's culture. Evidence proves that true. Some of the 2003 winners started on the Baldrige path as many as 15 years ago. Are you willing to put in the time to reach the Baldrige level of quality and competitiveness?

Every one of the 2003 winners spoke of internal company commitment to quality. In each case, top management believed in Baldrige and its benefits, and that belief worked its way down to the shop floor, the classroom or the hospital floor. John Friel, CEO of Medrad Inc. (Indianola, PA), a 2003 winner, spends at least one day per month in every aspect of company operations-shop floor, customer service, tech support and even sweeping the floor. His employees are enthusiastic and supportive of Medrad, Friel and quality. Does your company have that kind of commitment to quality?

It's tempting to pass off the Baldrige Award if you don't understand it. Check out the NIST Web site, www.nist.gov, to get the details. It may be tempting to pass off the Baldrige Award as not affecting "real-world" quality. Speak to one of the 58 past recipients and they'll tell you how it's made them a better company. And, it may be tempting to pass off Baldrige as just another "quality program of the day." I recommend the words of David Spong, president of Boeing Aerospace Support (St. Louis), who, with this year's award, has led three separate divisions of Boeing to Baldrige Awards.

"For those who don't believe in Baldrige, I tell you this. Act as if you believe, and eventually you will believe, because you'll see great results."

The facts are available about the benefits of Baldrige. Are you ready to believe? Do you want to make it to Washington? Do you want better quality?

Experience with the Baldrige Award? Pros? Cons? Let me know at [email protected].