Quality Impacts of Global Warming and Climate Change

Temperatures in central Alaska have been 60 below zero (degrees F) for two weeks now:

Alaska Extreme Cold

Extreme temperatures — in Johnson’s case about 60 below zero — call for extreme measures in a statewide cold snap so frigid that temperatures have grounded planes, disabled cars, frozen water pipes and even canceled several championship cross country ski races. Alaskans are accustomed to subzero temperatures but the prolonged conditions have folks wondering what’s going on with winter less than a month old.

This is not an isolated event. Just last week, a record snow event in Washington state and British Columbia caused roofs to collapse.

What does it mean when “extreme events” happen more and more often? Are we really succumbing to global warming, or has global warming stopped, putting us on the threshold of a new ice age? I’m not interested in assessing the scientific validity of these speculations, especially since in many cases the observed data doesn’t match earlier predictions – collectively, we still have a lot to learn about the true impacts of anthropic climate change.

What I do want to focus on is one way in which our expectations influence decision making in quality management, and how this relates to climate change and the prospect of global warming. We don’t construct buildings that can withstand such heavy snow in Washington state, because historical weather records indicate that such weather is not likely to occur. Similarly, we don’t fortify buildings to be earthquake-proof in New England, because we don’t expect that a damaging event will ever happen there. Our expectations of environmental conditions influence the technical specifications that we establish.And our ability to conform to those specifications is one factor that determines quality of output.

Juran’s definition of quality as “fitness for use” implies that we understand the typical environmental conditions that characterize the context of use. We also have to be cognizant of the extreme events that might occur, and when these extreme events are outside the bounds of our expectations, failures can occur.

So from the quality perspective, it doesn’t matter if the polar ice caps melt or if they advance as far as Florida. A major unspoken risk of climate change is that we will be required to adapt to new environmental expectations, and it will take some time for us to make our manufacturing systems respond. For example, airplanes are air-worthy because they are fit for the expected context of use (flight altitude, expected outside air pressure, turbulence that’s not severe). This week in fact, many planes in Alaska have been grounded because they weren’t built for the extreme conditions.

If the environment changes significantly (whether it’s through global warming or global cooling), the assumptions underlying the technical specifications for many of the products that support our economy may have to shift. In the meantime, we can expect frequent and potentially serious quality problems to emerge.

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