We’re already more than a decade into this new century, and companies are still waiting for the “next big thing” to surface. Many organizations are riding the Six Sigma and Lean wave but still seem to be waiting for the next “silver bullet.” Certainly reducing variation and removing waste are good things but, by themselves, they won’t save many organizations from continuing to work on the wrong things.

It doesn’t matter how streamlined organizational processes are or how much waste has been removed, if organizations aren’t satisfying their customers and treating them as life-time partners, they will fall short of where they want or need to be. As I’ve mentioned in prior columns, the time is ripe for quality professionals to play a significant role in their organizations.

It’s fashionable for corporate America, and will remain so for many organizations, to downplay the role of the quality professional. It’s even fashionable for some to say that quality is disappearing as a function within organizations; however, I firmly believe that the quality professional’s role is more important today, and will remain so, than ever before. The quality profession is still evolving whether we want it to or not and we have to be part of the solution.

Being a long-term provider of advanced quality training courses, a former senior leader of a Fortune 50 company, an ASQ Fellow, and a regular columnist on quality, I am regularly asked for my perspective about where quality is heading. Three years ago I spoke to the ASQ World Quality & Productivity Conference about specific directional changes and the forces behind them, and not much has changed in these past three years.

There are five key fundamental forces that are most apt to shape quality in the foreseeable future. These forces are important for the quality professional in how we must be braced for the challenges ahead.

Quality must positively impact the bottom line. Organizational leaders must be convinced that quality actually adds to the bottom line. It’s not that executive leaders don’t believe there is a link between profitability and quality but they are looking for more direct evidence. This means that quality professionals must be fully conversant in the language of finance and economics. It is imperative that we become bilingual!

Customer expectations will increase. Customers have increasingly become accustomed to speed, efficiency and excellent service. The expectations from internet transactions will continue to influence retail transactions almost beyond comprehension. Companies must realize that the value of their customers must be measured in life-time terms. Service quality will continue to play an increasing role in the retention of customers. The same expectations can be predicted in both government and public service sectors.

Trust and confidence in business, government, and public service leaders is likely to continue to decline. Consumers will become increasingly conscious of and responsive to the perceived ethical conduct of organizations they patronize. The ethical aspects of a growing number of issues and decisions will assume greater importance and be more visible. The quality profession has long been associated with ethical conduct; therefore, the quality professional can provide much needed support and counsel to executive leadership.

Management systems will increasingly absorb quality functions. The trend to eliminate or absorb quality functions began in the 1980s but most companies weren’t able to “pull this off.” Quality remains more important than ever. However, organizations will continue to effectively absorb quality functions into their management systems.  The quality tools and body of knowledge will be adopted by a wider spectrum of functions, making it more difficult to define who and what constitutes the quality profession. There will, however, remain a core of true, independent, quality professionals whose skill set will have to be more diverse and more strategic than in the past.

There will be an increasing need to merge the technical side with the human element. Over the years technology has advanced exponentially without much regard to the human element. As society moves forward, innovators and others will continue to be forced to consider the human element when developing and introducing new technologies. The complexity of life and the speed of change will create a premium on those things that simplify life.

There has been a lot of effort by many experts to make predictions about the future of quality. If interested it might be worthwhile to read the American Society for Quality (ASQ)’s latest report on this topic, but don’t look for anything concrete.

 Quality professionals are well-positioned to influence the changes that are coming and are best-equipped to help their organizations as well as society meet these changes effectively. We need to act quickly, however, because the next generation is already here and accelerating rapidly!