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Quality and Eastern Thought

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on this page topics Confucius he say elsewhere


Chinese schools of thought

Quality & human nature

Spelling of Chinese names


clear direction

focus on future


inspection & audit







Group Think




writings on quality

balancing the elements of consultancy


There is a story that IBM decided to have some parts manufactured in Japan as a trial project. In the specifications, they set out that the limit of defective parts would be acceptable at three units per 10,000.

When the delivery came in, there was an accompanying letter:

ďWe Japanese have a hard time understanding North American business practices. But the three defective parts per 10,000 have been included and are wrapped separately. Hope this pleases.Ē

There is a saying in Italian - si non e vero, e molto ben trovato. If this is just a joke, it's quite a good one - but be careful with the interpretation. The story does not say that Japanese are superior to Americans, or even that Japanese quality is superior to American quality, but that they are different. In my opinion, IBM comes out of the story rather well. It's always IBM, in every version of the story I've seen - whereas many stories of this kind are attached loosely to many different companies.


During the 1980s, it became commonplace in America and Europe to look to the East for an understanding of quality. Not only Japan, but also Korea and the other Pacific rim countries. We seek to emulate not only the level of quality they have achieved in their manufacturing process, but also their processes of continual improvement.

Many of the underlying principles of quality management followed in the Far East can be traced to the philosophical traditions of the East, in particular Confucius. Even the Maoist principle of constructive self-criticism can be seen as belonging to this tradition, although its compulsory and politicized practice often led to injustice and brutality.

Therefore these processes will probably soon become visible even in China itself. Although the burden of poverty is considerably larger than it ever was in its neighbours, and it will take correspondingly longer for Chinese industry as a whole to overcome this burden, pockets of high quality and industry are developing fast.

The purpose of this paper is to highlight some of the Confucian and neo-Confucian points of quality.

Schools of thought

Confucius and his followers typically contrast the conduct of the good or cultivated man (gentleman) or the wise man (sage) with the small or petty-minded man. The context for these statements is usually either personal situations or government office, but they often apply very well to modern management situations.

The Confucian literature comes in two main waves. The first wave was under the Zhou dynasty (c1100 - 256 BCE). Besides Confucius himself (551-479), the two main figures whose writings have survived were Mencius (d 289) and Xunzi (d 235). There are significant disagreements between these two.

The second wave (sometimes known as Neo-Confucianism) was under the Song dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), and included Zhou Dunyi, Chang Zai, Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi. For reasons of intellectual politics, the Neo-Confucians preferred Mencius to Xunzi; they elevated Mencius to being second after Confucius, and all but ignored Xunzi.

Apart from the Confucians, we may also mention the Legalist school, of which the most illustrious member was probably Han Fei Zi (d 233 BCE).

Note: there are of course many other important schools of Chinese thought, including Buddhism and Taoism. We may extend our analysis to these schools in future.

Quality and Human Nature

One of the key debates between Xunzi and Mencius was about human nature. How to account for the apparent moral differences between people: the fact that some people are wicked and some are not. Are we born wicked and selfish, but some of us acquire goodness through cultivation [Xunzi]? Or are we born good, but some of us somehow lose this goodness (permanently or temporarily) [Mencius]?

The Neo-Confucians plumped for the basic goodness of human nature. As they saw it, the basic human blueprint was for a healthy and morally upright person. Poor character was like physical disability or illness; it meant that there was a defect, such that the person fell short of the blueprint. Unlike other creatures, however, human nature allowed for self-improvement. This meant that it was in principle possible to overcome defects (unless of course these defects incapacitated the self-improvement mechanism itself).

The Neo-Confucians therefore equated the good with the natural. Their arguments moved fluidly between IS and OUGHT. (In Western intellectual circles, arguments from IS to OUGHT are regarded with disfavour, thanks to David Hume. These arguments ARE invalid, so we OUGHT not to use them.)

It is easy to see how the Neo-Confucian notion of goodness applies to the manufacture of physical goods. It is natural (and therefore good) for an object to conform to its blueprint. Nature, in the Chinese sense, is perfect; and so perfection is natural. In the West, we tend to the opposite view: imperfection is in the nature of things, and perfection belongs only to mathematics and God. We therefore hesitate to strive for perfection: this hesitation is (or represents) an important phenomenon, both psychologically and culturally.


Confucius said: "People who do not think far enough ahead inevitably have worries near at hand." [Analects, §15.12]

Confucius said: "Few lose out on account of prudence." [Analects, §4.23]

Confucius said: "Donít wish for speed; donít see small advantages. If you wish for speed, you wonít succeed; if you see small advantages, great things will not be accomplished" [Analects, §13.27]

Clear direction

Confucius said: "Cultivated people are easy to work for but hard to please. If you try to please them in the wrong way, they are not pleased. When they employ people, they consider their capacities. Petty people are hard to work for but easy to please. Even if you please them by something that is wrong, they are still pleased. When they employ people, they expect everything." [Analects, §13.25]

Focus on future

Confucius said: "Donít talk about what is already done; donít remonstrate about what is already over; donít criticize what has already happened." [Analects, §3.21]


Han Fei Zi, on the benefits of laws (i.e. explicit policies, procedures and metrics): "Though a skilled carpenter is capable of judging a straight line with his eye alone, he will always take his measurements with a rule; though a man of superior wisdom is capable of handling affairs by native wit alone, he will always look to the laws of the former kings for guidance. Stretch the plumb line, and crooked wood can be planed straight; apply the level, and bumps and hollows can be shaved away; balance the scales, and heavy and light can be adjusted; get out the measuring jars, and discrepancies of quantity can be corrected. In the same way, one should use laws to govern the state, disposing of all matters on their basis alone. Ö For correcting the faults of superiors, chastising the misdeeds of subordinates, restoring order, exposing error, checking excess, remedying evil, and unifying the standards of the people, nothing can compare to law." [Han Fei Tzu, p 28]

Note the assumption that the best procedures are those of the past.

The Taoist ideal of taking no action (wu wei) had a strong appeal to the Legalists, because if laws worked effectively at all times, there would be no need for any actual government.


Confucius said: "If you can correct yourself, what trouble would you have in government? If you cannot correct yourself, what can you do about correcting others?" [Analects, §13.13]

Confucius said: "If you make a mistake and do not correct it, this is called a mistake." [Analects, §15.30]


Confucius said: "To go to war with untrained people is tantamount to abandoning them." [Analects, §13.30]


Confucius said: "At first the way I dealt with people was to listen to their words and trust they would act on them. Now I listen to their words and observe whether they act on them." [Analects, §5.10]

A quality audit also takes this approach.

Avoiding groupthink

Confucius said: "If a country is just, one speaks independently and acts independently. If a country is unjust, one acts independently but speaks conventionally." [Analects, §14.4]

Confucius said: "A cultivated person does not promote people on account of what they say, nor ignore what is said because of who is saying it." [Analects, §15.23]

Confucius said: "When everyone dislikes something, it should be examined. When everyone likes something, it should be examined." [Analects, §15.28]

Spelling of Chinese names

In the text, I have used pinyin transliteration for all names except Confucius and Mencius. (Confucius and Mencius were the only two Chinese thinkers to be given Latinized names, because they were the ones translated by the first Jesuit missionaries.) Many books published in the West still use the older Wade-Giles transliterations in their titles, however, and I have retained these spellings when referring to such books. This has led to some discrepancies in spelling.

Extracts from the writings of all streams of Chinese thought, including the important Neo-Confucians, can be found in Chanís excellent anthology. Wing-Tsit Chan. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. 

Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963

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I have taken translations of Confucius from both Cleary and Dawson. Confucius, The Analects. trans Raymond Dawson.

Oxford: OUP, 1993

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The Essential Confucius. trans Thomas Cleary.

New York: Harper Collins, 1992

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The most illustrious member of the Legalist school was probably Han Fei Zi (d 233 BCE). Han Fei Tzu, Basic Writings. trans Burton Watson.

New York: Columbia University Press, 1964

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veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

richard veryard


writings on quality

Written March 1994.
Last updated October 21st, 2001.
Copyright © 1994-2001 Richard Veryard