"Quest for Quality" by Ian Webb (The Industrial Society, 122 pages, £19.95).
Review by Robert Dawson.
Speak to anyone recently returned from a seminar or conference on quality and you will almost certainly detect a touch of the evangelical. He has just heard the wicked firm castigated for sloppiness, seen the prophet pointing the way towards the promised land. The converts converse in strange tongues full of acronyms.
This book is made of altogether drier stuff. Ian Webb opts instead for a sober evaluation of the search for quality in Japanese, American and British industry. The approach has advantages - and drawbacks. Even-handed and cerebral, Webb is faintly contemptuous of programmes "launched in a carnival-style fashion ... combining management-by-objectives with a steak lunch". He is refreshingly steadfast in his refusal to genuflect at everything Japanese.
Yet the book somehow fails to satisfy. It is not so much that Webb does not tell us anything new; more that whenever he approaches controversial topics he veers away just when the debate is becoming interesting. In a chapter on design he laments the shortcomings of an educational system that fails to address the multidisciplinary nature of the subject. But he does not develop the argument beyond a vague hope that the new curriculum will go some way to make good the deficiency.
His book is unlikely to offend anyone, least of all the PR departments of the companies featured, all of which are handled with kid gloves. Here a deferential nod to Marks and Spencer, there a tribute to CD manufacturer Nimbus.
In spite of the "best of British" line-up, there are moments when one questions the depth of Webb's commitment to quality for its own sake. He is obviously attracted to master craftsmen like John Makepeace and Count Numa Labinsky. Yet utilitarian considerations have a tendency to creep into the argument. Thus there is a complimentary reference to a company that eschews "nice-to-know" material in its training programme as being a waste of money. But in the same chapter we are told to emulate the Japanese practice of enticing trust and respecting the contribution of the workforce.
It is hardly the preacher hurling thunderbolts from the pulpit; more a vicarage tea party. Yet in real life cups and saucers do get broken, as any chief executive can testify who has taken an organisation beyond the evangelical burnout phase that Webb seems so anxious to avoid.
(Robert Dawson is a freelance writer.)