Quality and Innovation: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

Even if you’re not car crazy like I am, you’re probably aware that there are certain marques, or brands, that epitomize the best and worst in automotive quality. Honda jumps from my mind as a paragon of automotive virtue, mainly because I’m on my second Civic and both have served me well. They’ve been reliable because they were well-manufactured and I’m a believer in preventive maintenance. I’ve rolled up nearly 160,000 miles on my 2003 Civic Hybrid and plan to keep it for at least another 90,000.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid (Honda Motors)

Then there are the Yugos and Trabants of the world.

1985 Yugo GV (TIME)

1990 Trabant (AP photo)

(NOTE: I didn’t pick all my cars well. My personal badge of shame was a 1972 Dodge Charger, known as the “Charger POS model”. It was a used car when I bought it, so I can’t blame Chrysler entirely for its poor quality.)

In between the automotive highs and lows is a vast number of brands that have come and gone.

Obviously, the automobile companies that have survived — and will continue to — employ a wide range of quality tools and techniques. They also innovate.

Many automotive innovations are rather small in stature and don’t have a measurable effect on the quality of the overall product, but they meet a customer need. An excellent example of this is the cup holder.

Cup holder, old school

I got along fine without one for years but my life would be incomplete without cup holders today.

Many other innovations in the automotive world — the assembly line, the electric starter (100 years old in 2012), independent suspension, air bags, the Toyota Production System, and the list goes on and on — enabled certain auto makers to stand out competitively and blazed a new path for everyone else to follow. These innovations had everything to do with improving quality.

Then there are those innovations that only “gearheads” can come up with. They have a need — to make cars go faster, to turn them into works of rolling art, or to simply experiment. They may or may not fit the textbook definition of “quality” but it’s fun to see what people come up with when their minds aren’t cluttered with ideas of what a car is “supposed to be”.

Every summer, there’s a Dream Cruise on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Woodward Avenue, one of the longest straightaways in urban America, is where car lovers once raced their personal vehicles for fun, bragging rights, and (sometimes) money. It was all about experimenting with your car, to see if you could coax a few more horsepower out of the engine or cheat the wind somehow.

Woodward Avenue is said to have provided the inspiration for the Pontiac GTO back in the day. Now, it’s mainly about showing off your vehicle in the hours-long parade once a year.

Modified BMW Isetta (NY Times)

As you can see from the picture above, not every innovation is destined for greatness. (They probably said something like that about airbags.) Without the innovators, we’d have nothing.

So, are quality and innovation mutually exclusive? Tell me what you think.


  1. Stenquist, Paul, “On Woodward Dream Cruise, a Quest for the Wonderful and Wonderfully Odd”, NY Times online, August 22, 2011 – http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/on-woodward-dream-cruise-a-quest-for-the-wonderful-and-wonderfully-odd/
  2. “The 50 Worst Cars of All Time – 1985 Yugo GV”, TIME Special – http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1658545_1658533_1658529,00.html

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Posted in Innovation, Quality management
4 comments on “Quality and Innovation: Are They Mutually Exclusive?
  1. I’m a believer in “preventive maintenance” too and, actually, my least favorite car of all our cars was also a Dodge. As far as I’m concerned, the simpler the better, so I’m not really into all the innovations–automotive or otherwise. Thanks for a great blog and I’ll be back again!

  2. Nader Ashway says:

    Quality and innovation – a nice tandem if you can manage it, but not all companies do. There are many businesses (not just car companies,) who are innovative, but don’t necessarily put that innovation to use in improving quality. Conversely, there are zillions of companies who believe steadfastly in quality, but don’t always innovate.

    Interesting to think of companies in several categories that HAVE managed both in recent years:
    Ford (yes, I said FORD – the partnership with Microsoft on the MyFord Touch is very innovative, and the vehicles are built pretty well, too!)

    Any others?

  3. Love it! This is my first visit and I have to admit that it was worth every second. I love cars. My dad worked in the auto-industry since before I was born. I almost followed in his footsteps. It is amazing how easy it is to veer in one of the two directions you described: innovation -or- quality. I’ll have to second Sandra and say I’ll take quality anyday (if I can’t have both).

    • Q9C says:

      To me, implementing quality tools and practices is a sign that you want your business to mature. As our businesses mature, however, our ability to innovate sometimes decreases. Innovation often requires a fresh perspective, an outside perspective — a mind unfettered by prevailing sentiment or the rules most of us need. If the organization isn’t careful, its quality management system — meant to be a framework — can also be a constraint.

      What do you think? Should the next ISO 9001 rewrite, whenever that comes, give more weight to the subject of “innovation?”

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