Quality Management, Architecture & Politics

September 23, 2010

An Exploration1

- by Luis Trappe


With the issue of quality management in architecture high on the political agenda, it seems relevant to briefly examine what quality management really is. To do that, quality management must be traced back to its origins and placed in its socio-economic context. Subsequently the compatibility of quality management with architecture is discussed and the relation with politics commented on.

The roots of quality management can be traced back to the early stages of capitalism, after the Industrial Revolution. At the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution, production was still based on craftsmanship and traditional methods. Products and parts of products were made by skilled craftsmen, handcrafting and tweaking the product to achieve a certain quality, or to make it fit its counterpart. In almost all cases a completed item was produced, from start to finish, by one person. This was also the case in the industries where the capitalist mode of production became dominant. The growth in productivity was actualized by centralizing the work in workshops and controlling the labor intensiveness of the workers.

The idea of interchangeability made its first appearance in the armories at the end of the eighteenth century. Manufacturing standardized parts was suggested to make firearms more efficient to produce and make field repairs easier to carry out under battle conditions. The idea of interchangeability migrated from the armories to general industry during the course of the nineteenth century. Its practical development and implementation was mainly dependent on technical innovations, substituting traditional hand tools with more complex machine tools. At the end of the nineteenth century, this was complemented with the rationalization of the work process. Animated by the belief that the United States suffered from inefficiency in almost all its daily acts, and convinced that there was need for a greater national efficiency, Frederick Winslow Taylor developed scientific management .2 The central idea of scientific management was to replace traditional work methods with those based on a rational analysis of the tasks to be performed. Through this, the traditions, skills and experience of the workers were replaced by a standard method, defined by the management for which workers were selected, trained and supervised. This task-oriented optimization that led to the division of labour and the deskilling of the worker was combined with defining the set up of machines, the flow of resources and the sequence of operations to improve productivity. Combined with the use of the most efficient machinery available, the goal was to create the ‘one best way’ to do the job. Seeking a complete standardization of tools and work processes, it placed a great emphasis on predictability, with the aim being to produce a consistently high-quality output. From this moment on, a continuous effort to improve efficiency would become one of the main mechanisms for the increase in productivity – a concept central to the process of generating economic growth. Taylor’s approach is also often referred to as Taylorism. In combination with the introduction of the assembly line, his approach  is referred to as Fordism. The latter would stay the most efficient organization of economic production until the late Seventies.

Scientific management was the beginning of the movement that systematically treated management and process improvement as a scientific problem. The body of formal scientific knowledge that the management could rely on for decision making increased with the advancement of statistical methods and applied mathematics. This transformed the practice of scientific management into quality control (in the 20’s), operations research (during and after the Second World War) and then management science (from the late 60’s on).

Traditionally, the management of quality was the responsibility of a quality department and defects were caught by inspections of the product output. This changed with the introduction of Total Quality Management. The control then became an integrated part of the manufacturing process. Coined by the statistician William Edwards Deming, Total Quality Management indicates the beginning of a new era in quality management and the start of an exponential growth in the variety of quality management methods from the 80’s onwards. Present day quality management differs in terminology and approach from Taylor’s scientific management, but on a closer examination the very core of it has not changed that much. Arguably they can all be seen as adapted and elaborated versions of scientific management. Re-engineering, which was big in the 90’s, has been criticized for dehumanizing the work place, increasing managerial control and being a rebirth of Taylorism under a different label.3 Shigeo Shingo, one of the originators of the Toyota Production System and proponent of today’s lean manufacturing, explicitly cites Taylor as his inspiration.4 The apparent rupture is caused by the transition from the Fordist mode of production to the Post-Fordist one. Fordism was characterized by a cycle of mass production and mass consumption, the production of standardized consumer items to be sold in typically protected domestic markets and the use of Keynesian politics that generated national demand and social stability. The decline of Fordism accompanied by the rise of Post-Fordism witnessed a declining interest in mass products and a growing interest in more customized and specialized products. The economy became increasingly globalized and a withdrawal of politics from the economic sphere went together with what Fredric Jameson called ‘a prodigious expansion of capital in hitherto uncommodified areas.’5 Thus began the infiltration and domination of economic principles in more and more sectors of society.

It became more profitable to target diverse product lines at different groups of consumers and more important to respond quickly to the whims of the market. This change from mass production of a single product, to flexible and small batch production of a variety of product types, required smaller and more productive systems, flexible production technologies and better skilled workers. The production process itself became split up in smaller entities and divided amongst various subcontractors.6 In the reorganization and streamlining of the revolutionized production process, quality management took a central role. It conceptualized the  divided process as a system, became customer focused, concerned about relations with suppliers and infiltrated all levels of the organization. But its core remained the same: increasing the efficiency of the production system by optimizing the flow of resources, the sequence of operations and the movements of the workforce. Standardization is still the basis of manufacturing, but now the standardized process is continuously monitored, improved and innovated to achieve ever more predictable process results.

In short, quality management is an economic tool to increase efficiency – a concept central to the process of generating economic growth. It aims for a consistent quality in the outcome of a process, making sure that a product or service will satisfy pre-defined requirements. It does so by controlling the quality of the product and the quality of the production process. With the quality of the product typically defined as ‘meeting the expectations and requirements of the customer, the main focus is on the quality of the process. The latter is defined in relation to the variability and predictability of its outcome. The higher the quality of a process, the lower the variability in its output, thereby the process becomes more predictable.
To increase efficiency, quality management centers on standardization and predictability.

What would be the impact of quality management on architecture? To answer this questions the term architecture needs to be defined. Running the risk to add on to an already endless list, it nevertheless seems relevant to present architecture as the creative vision of the architect, materialized as part of an economic process in a socio-political context. In this definition, the presence of a creative vision is paramount. It is the creative vision that sets architecture apart from mere building.

A building can be the result of a design process based on a rational planning model, in which the problem is defined or presented, possible solutions are generated and the best solution is chosen based on rational and objective assessment criteria.7 But this is not true for architecture. Rationally solving the presented problem, or fulfilling all given requirements of the brief, does not transform a building into architecture. The former does not imply that architecture does not have to face topics that need to be satisfied in a rational manner; it implies that this is not enough. A high degree of rational problem solving is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for architecture. Architecture requires creativity.

Creativity involves the association of elements that at first sight, or on a rational basis, are unrelated to the matter in question but lead to an unexpected and surprising result. This makes the design trajectory of architecture projects inherently unpredictable. The architectural process is not a rational, standardized and well structured process. It includes apparently insignificant and unrelated design operations, discoveries, numerous detours and unpredictable outcomes. It is this unexpected element that, for instance, Le Corbusier alludes to when he defines architecture in relation to construction: “You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say: ‘This is beautiful.’ That is architecture.”8
It is clear that the nature of creativity and the creative process are not compatible with the pursuit of efficiency, standardization and predictability as postulated by quality management.9 As a result, it is against all probability that quality management can be of any help in architecture.

The built environment is firmly grounded in a specific form of social organization. It both reflects and structures society. Expressing certain values, it mediates, constructs and reproduces power relations.10 This makes the practice of designing the physical environment inherently political. Politics is a discursive practice based on language, arguments, programs and ideology. In our democracy, the government reflects the power relations of the society at large and its decisions are assumed to be for the benefit of the collective well-being. In this sense, governmental impact on the built environment is natural and desirable. Among the traditional tools, a government has to keep a certain grip on the built environment through the enactment of a building code and the practice of urban planning. The first consists of a set of rules relating to the building (or construction) on a rather technical level. The second deals with the organization of the physical environment on a larger scale. Both relate to the built environment, but not to architecture per se. However, severe regulations can heavily decrease the possibility of taking an unexpected stance, thus decreasing the potential for architecture.

Do the recent concerns with architecture imply a failure of those methods? Not necessarily, as the essence of the problem goes well beyond this technical level. Although the term suggests otherwise, architecture policies typically consider the whole built environment as subject.11 The current focus on architecture is a reaction to the fact that governments are increasingly losing their grip on the built environment. The development of strategies to ensure or manage the ‘quality of architecture’ shows that they are in search of methods to regain control.

As described earlier, the Post-Fordist society is characterized by a withdrawal of politics from the economic sphere, combined with an infiltration and domination of economic principles in ever more sectors of society. The built environment did not escape this evolution and has become more and more subject to economic principles, at the expense of the political sphere. The common use of constructions like the Public-Private Partnership to realize the built environment is exemplary of this. Originated in the 80’s, the Public-Private Partnership was proposed as an alternative for the standard model of public procurement. The idea behind the Public-Private Partnership is to transfer responsibilities to the private sector, making the realization of the built environment more efficient therefore achieving a more cost effective result. In contrast to the public procurement model – where the government specifies the process of the realization of the project, including quality aspects – the definition of the process is left to the private sector in a Public-Private Partnership. The focus of the government is reduced to the output of the process. Ruled by economic considerations, the private sector will deliver buildings that are subservient to economic principles. This, combined with a government that evaluates the output mainly on economic criteria, like efficiency and costs, results in a condition which makes it almost impossible for architecture to flourish.
The evolution described has resulted in a built environment that has become subservient to the market and its terms, shifting the role of the state away from producer, towards quality assurer. The need for the government to reassert its control over the built environment is argued to be the result of the dominance of the economy over the built environment. This means that ensuring the quality of the built environment can never be achieved by using a method that is inherently part of the economic sphere. Implementing a method like quality management will only strengthen the hegemony of the market. In the end, it is not a question of defining and controlling quality in architecture; it is about making architecture possible. Therefore, it is not about answering questions but about asking them. It is about creating an environment in which critical reflection is encouraged and debate stimulated. The built environment needs governance based on a discursive foundation.


1. As an exploration of the subject matter, the article relies heavily on Wikipedia as source for basic information (www.wikipedia.org). Mainly used in part one, the below lemmata proved to be very useful: American system of manufacturing; Interchangeable parts; Quality management; Quality management system; Scientific management; The principles of scientific management; Operations research; Total quality management; W. Edwards Deming; Business process reengineering; Toyota Production System; Lean manufacturing; Fordism; Kaizen; Six Sigma; Rational planning model; Organisational studies; Public-private partnership; Public/social/private partnership.
2. Frederick W. Taylor, The principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper & Row, 1947; Robert Kanigel. One best way: Frederick Winslow and the enigma of efficiency. New York: Viking, 1997.
3. Wikipedia. Business process reengineering. Internet, (July 16, 2010). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_process_reengineering).
4. Shingeo Shingo. The sayings of Shigeo Shingo: Key strategies for plant improvement. Cambridge, MA: Productivity Press, 1987.
5. Frederic Jameson. Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. New Left Review 146, 1984. p. 78.
6. For a comprehensive study of the transition from Fordism to Post-Fordism see: David Harvey. The condition of postmodernity. An enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
7. The rational planning model is very similar to what is called the rational decision making model in organisational behaviour. Generally considered to have begun as an academic discipline with the advent of Scientific Management, organisational behaviour is the study and application of how people act in organisations. As such, its field of study and development is related to that of quality management.
8. Le Corbusier. Towards a new architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1985. p.153.
9. Even in business management literature, the incompatibility of quality management methods and creativity is documented;fFor instance, Brian Hindo. At 3M, a struggle between efficiency and creativity. Businessweek. June 11, 2007. Internet, (July 29, 2010). (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_24/b4038406.htm?chan=top+news_top+news+index_best+of+bw)
10. On the nexus between place and power: Kim Dovey. Framing places, mediating power in built form. London: Routledge, 2008.
11. However, architecture policies naturally center on buildings and structures the government has direct responsibility for, or is an important stakeholder in.

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