As quality professionals we should borrow from the wisdom of Charles Dickens. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. It is the best of times because the need for continual improvement and for performance excellence is evident to quality professionals, business managers and the customers we serve.

It is easy for quality professionals to feel needed during this period. With the proliferation of quality tools and techniques, we should be even more prepared than in past years to step in, fill in the gaps and provide a valuable service to our respective organizations.

It also is the worst of times. While it seems obvious to those working in the field of quality, CEOs are nearly unanimous in their agreement that “quality” has a positive effect on the bottom line. According to an American Society for Quality (ASQ) survey, however, many of those same business leaders don’t think much of the quality profession.

ASQ conducted a survey that should have been a very clear call to action but was, in fact, largely ignored by the quality profession. The survey asked 603 CEOs questions about quality. Two questions were of particular interest. When asked if quality was good for their bottom line profitability, 601 said that it was. In other words 99.7% of American CEOs knew that quality added dollars to their bottom line.

It is troublesome, however, that two CEOs did not think that the quality of their product had any effect on their company’s bottom line. I wonder what the drivers were behind their response. Generally, without quality of products, customers do not spend their dollars. Therefore, it is like saying that customers are not important. Let them try to manage without customers and see where that gets them. This could be a column in itself for the future.

When asked if they considered quality to be a profession such as law or finance, less than half of the CEOs would give our chosen profession such status.

In short, these companies recognized the importance of quality, but they didn’t understand the value of the quality profession. So what happened and what can we do about it?

The word quality has been cheapened over the years, maybe beyond redemption. It has been used by too many people in too many ways in recent years.

In the marketplace, as an example, the phrase that replaced quality was continuous improvement. This in turn became continual improvement and then morphed into continuous quality improvement as the phrase of choice in some industries such as health care.

The proliferation of terms has confused the marketplace. Six Sigma, JIT, MBNQA, ISO 9000, ISO/TS 16949, Kaizen, Kanban, SPC, 5S, Lean, TPM, TQM, TPS and TRIZ are but a few of the initiatives confronting organizational leaders. No wonder business and operational managers are confused on this subject. It seems that too many consultants are just trying to sell the next savior to gain an advantage in the marketplace and sell more books.

As quality professionals, we must provide a valuable service to our organizations. One of the ways to do this is to bring clarity to the above list of alphabet soup. These initiatives do have value, and, when properly deployed, can bring about positive change to our organizations.

Our challenge, if we choose to accept it, is not just to collect and analyze data for our respective organizations, but to provide solutions to the leadership-solutions that will lead our organizations to use the right tool, at the right time, to the right situation, which will bring about the right solution to get the right result.

We have a chance to bring clarity to the quality issue and to be a change leader to our organizations. Don’t miss this opportunity. Remember, we don’t have to do any of these things, survival is not compulsory.