Garbage in, garbage out. It’s a term born in the early days of the computer and computer programming. The phrase, and its popular acronym, GIGO, are said to have been taken from the business strategies of LIFO and FIFO—last in, first out and first in, first out—as it pertains to inventory management.

It is also said to date back to November 10, 1957, when it appeared in an article detailing the work of U.S. Army mathematicians and the development of the computer. Army Specialist William D. Mellin explained that “computers cannot think for themselves, and that ‘sloppily programmed’ inputs inevitably lead to incorrect outputs.”

Even more simply, bad inputs will lead to bad outputs. Because of its logic and simplicity, the term has come to be used to describe a host of practices across a number of disciplines. For example, many a chef complimented for the preparation of a good meal has replied, “It helps when you cook with the right ingredients.”

It’s an oft-heard sentiment in publishing, particularly back in the days of print superiority. The publishers of the eye-catching and breath-taking photographs of Life Magazine would have been hard pressed to wow anyone, or even sufficiently reproduce the world around us, with fuzzy, low resolution images.

Take, for instance, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Launched in 1990, the HST’s technology and position in outer space “allows it to take extremely high-resolution images... Many Hubble observations have led to breakthroughs in astrophysics, such as accurately determining the rate of expansion of the universe.”

However, none of this would have been possible when the HST was first launched, as its main mirror was found to have been ground incorrectly, compromising the telescope’s capabilities. Fortunately, a 1993 mission was able to repair the optics and return Hubble to its intended level of quality, making possible the list of accomplishments above.

GIGO is also prevalent in research studies, surveys, and polls. Consider just one aspect of corrupted data collection, the health bias, as described by Charles Wheelan—a former correspondent for The Economist—of his book “Naked Statistics”:

“Suppose public health officials promulgate a theory that all new parents should put their children to bed only in purple pajamas, because that helps stimulate brain development. Twenty years later, longitudinal research confirms that having worn purple pajamas as a child does have an overwhelmingly large positive association with success in life. We find, for example, that 98 percent of entering Harvard freshmen wore purple pajamas as children (and many still do) compared with only 3 percent of inmates in the Massachusetts state prison system.

“Of course, the purple pajamas do not matter; but having the kind of parents who put their children in purple pajamas does matter. Even when we try to control for factors like parental education, we are still going to be left with unobservable differences between those parents who obsess about putting their children in purple pajamas and those who don’t.”

Not surprisingly, quality is a discipline affected by GIGO as well. As author Paul W. Critchley writes, “Lean isn’t going to help you if your quality is bad. Why just make bad stuff faster?” So read “Lean’s Impact on Quality” and all else we have to offer in this month’s Quality.

Enjoy and thanks for reading!