Twenty years ago (January 28, 1987), the U.S. Congress introduced legislation to establish a national quality improvement award. By the time Congress passed the bill and President Reagan signed it into law seven months later, the award had acquired the Baldrige name in honor of the recently deceased Secretary of Commerce, Malcolm Baldrige. In the two decades since, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award has been presented 71 times. It has come to be recognized as a cornerstone of quality improvement philosophy and practice in the United States and around the world.

The recipients of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the award’s impact and diffusion. That the award program has been imitated in countries all over the world attests to its global impact and value.

Significance and Impact
Thousands of organizations have used the Baldrige criteria and core values as a guide for organizational excellence – a systematic framework for delivering continuously improving value to customers and improving overall organizational performance. This includes organizations that have applied for the award and those that have used the award criteria solely for self-assessment. It also includes organizations that have applied for state quality awards in the United States and the national awards in other countries that are based on the Baldrige model.

Congress has expanded eligibility for the Baldrige Award twice to include additional types of organizations. Healthcare, education and non-profit organizations (including government agencies) have been added to the original three categories – manufacturing, service and small business.

The Baldrige Award has inspired hundreds of thousands of individuals. Legions of volunteers have received training as Baldrige examiners and judges. In addition to their service evaluating the applications of Baldrige applicants, these highly trained individuals take their skills back to their organizations and state quality award programs to diffuse the Baldrige model of performance excellence throughout their communities.

Being named a Baldrige Award recipient carries with it a significant responsibility to share the knowledge and best practices that contributed to earning the award. Collectively, the Baldrige Award recipients have conducted tens of thousands of presentations sharing their successful strategies. Imagine the extended value of improvement in the organizations that heard and acted on those presentations.

Economists measured the impact of the Baldrige Award on the economy. They determined that the social rate of return is 207 to 1. That is, for every dollar invested in the program, the economy receives a benefit of $207.

Professor David Garvin of the Harvard Business School once called the Baldrige program “the most important catalyst for transforming American business.” He said, “More than any other initiative, public or private, it has reshaped managers’ thinking and behavior.”

A Sometimes Rocky Road
It took more than two years from the time American business and quality leaders first seriously discussed the idea of a national quality award until the Baldrige Award legislation became law. It went nowhere on its first introduction in Congress and had to be re-introduced.

Interest in the Baldrige Award among management and the public has ebbed and flowed over the years. There have been occasional criticisms of the program and some of its recipients.

David B. Luther, president of Luther Quality Associates, one of the original Baldrige Award judges, reflected on some of the precautions taken to protect the integrity of the award.

“There were very strong safeguards within the teams of judges to prevent any judge associated in any way with an applicant from having any influence on the selection. Any judge who was in any position to influence or benefit from the selection was not part of the discussions of the judges on that applicant. The judge never even saw or heard any of the results of those discussions. And the Foundation was beyond the horizon for the judges – it was not involved in the judging process in any way.”

The success of the Baldrige Award program is due in part to its nature as a cooperative effort involving the government, private and voluntary sectors. Private-sector businesses and executives support the program through endowment of the Foundation for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The voluntary sector contributes quality improvement know-how and the services of volunteer judges and examiners.

Each year, the Baldrige Board of Examiners brings together more than 300 experts from manufacturing, service, education, healthcare, government and non-profit organizations. These individuals volunteer many hours reviewing applications, conducting site visits and providing invaluable feedback to the applicants. To date, nearly 3,000 examiners and 75 judges have undergone extensive training to carry out these responsibilities.

In the first step of the four-step review process, each application is evaluated independently by at least eight different business and quality experts. In the second step, six examiners reach consensus before an applicant moves on to the third step, the site visit phase. Applicant names are blinded out until this step. Site visits ensure the claims made in the application are genuine. The fourth step is a background check conducted to ensure that any outstanding legal, regulatory or ethical matters are known and considered. In addition, Annual Improvement Days deploy exercises to ensure the criteria evolve to represent the best current wisdom.

“The Baldrige process is fundamentally very sound,” states Kay Kendall, an American Society for Quality board member who has been a Baldrige examiner and judge. “Numerous firewalls are in place – between judges and the Foundation, between applicants and the judges and examiners – and there is close scrutiny for any real or perceived conflicts of interest.”

Some would argue that success as a Baldrige recipient should confer on an organization a perpetual place of distinction in the marketplace. Indeed for many it has, even though some Baldrige recipients have not fared so well after receiving the award. Changes in leadership, changes in priorities and changes in the environment make it difficult to ensure everlasting focus on the disciplines of the Baldrige criteria. Exceptions do not prove much, certainly not the point, unless you have information to evaluate the exceptions.

“Baldrige is not about perfection,” according to Sr. Mary Jean Ryan, president and CEO of Baldrige recipient SSM Healthcare. “No organization is perfect. Organizations that open themselves to Baldrige, however, are all about improving. The Baldrige process helps organizations achieve new levels of excellence.” 

ASQ’s Role
The American Society for Quality has long been a proponent of a national quality award and was a participant in some of the conversations and hearings that led to the establishment of the Baldrige Award. ASQ members have played roles in every aspect of the Baldrige program, from its inception through its ongoing operation and continuing evolution. Many members have served as Baldrige examiners and as participants in the establishment and activities of the state quality award programs. They also take the Baldrige criteria into their own organizations and use the Baldrige methodology to promote quality throughout the land.

ASQ holds a contract with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), awarded under a competitive bidding process, to perform certain administrative functions for the Baldrige program. ASQ’s role does not include participation in the selection of recipients.

ASQ was instrumental in the 1998 expansion of Baldrige Award into education and healthcare. And in 2004 and 2005, ASQ took the lead role among a coalition of Baldrige supporters to establish and secure funding for the non-profit category. 

An Evolving Educational Program
At its core, the Baldrige Award is essentially a national educational program that has an award as its capstone. The award process and criteria constantly evolve and improve.

The Baldrige Award is the nation’s most significant vehicle for advancing quality and organization-wide excellence and for raising awareness about quality. As the program enters its third decade, it is worthy of widespread support.

To learn more about the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, visit http://baldrige.nist.gov/ or www.asq.org.