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1987: Tragedy Gives Impetus to Award

Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige sitting at desk.
26th Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige
Credit: Baldrige Family

The next year, Congressman Doug Walgren reintroduced the legislation, and Senator Bob Graham sponsored a Senate version of the bill. On June 8, 1987, the measure passed the House and was sent to the Senate, where nothing happened for six weeks.

“What slowed the process down was the question of the right approach to implementing a national quality award,” said Kent Sterett, who headed quality at FPL. “There was a great deal of discussion about whether it should be a private initiative or a government approach or some combination of the two. The prognosis for pushing it through wasn’t good.”11

With the reintroduced legislation, Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige is said to have given the idea of a quality award his support, saying, "What we need are some manufacturers and engineers calling the shots if America is to compete effectively in world markets.”12 He also said, “We have to encourage American executives to get out of their boardrooms and onto the factory floor to learn how their products are made and how they can be made better.”13

At NBS, Reimann recalled that the national quality award legislation was reintroduced about the same time as NBS scientists were working on “Process and Quality Control.” Staffers on Capitol Hill became aware of NBS’s knowledge and interest in quality and approached Raymond Kammer, NBS deputy director, about NBS being named in the bill to manage the national quality award. Kammer agreed and informed Reimann of this development, indicating that NBS would ask him to launch the award were it to become law, which, Kammer indicated, was very unlikely.

Reimann became fascinated with the requirements for a national quality award, even though there was little likelihood that it would be created. Particularly important to its success would be demanding criteria, credible examiners, and an effective public‐private partnership—unlike any he knew about. But he also emphasized that NBS and he had no role in introducing the legislation, saying what was to be in it, or promoting its passage.

President Ronald Reagan and Secretary Baldrige walking away from a helicopter.
President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige
Credit: Baldrige Family

Then, on July 25, 1987, Baldrige, the government’s most notable business leader and close friend of President Reagan, died after a rodeo accident. The son of a Nebraska congressman, Baldrige earned his reputation as CEO at Scovill, Inc., a Connecticut‐based brass mill; he was credited with transforming the financially troubled company into a multimillion‐dollar success.14

“The Monday after the weekend Baldrige died,” Sterett recalled, “I went to dinner with a small group of staffers for senators and representatives. The idea had surfaced to name the national quality award after Malcolm Baldrige.” That idea appealed to the president, who wanted to honor the friend he had lost.15

“The point that’s hard to convey now,” Reimann said, “is that there was pent‐up feeling that something needed to be done about national competitiveness and quality problems. Then, this terrible accident [Baldrige’s death] suddenly created a vehicle that people could rally around. Those kinds of confluences are very rare. It was an accident of circumstances.”

Three days after Baldrige’s death, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation renamed the legislation in his honor. The Senate passed the bill, the House agreed to the name change, and, on August 20, 1987, President Reagan signed the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Improvement Act of 1987 into law.

Reimann said shortly after Baldrige’s death, NBS learned that not only would a law in Baldrige’s name pass, but it would pass very soon. In late summer, Reimann said, he also learned that Baldrige’s successor, William Verity, Jr., was getting advice to make the national quality award one of his top priorities. Reimann said Verity was persistent in focusing NBS management on this priority.

Bert Coursey, on a rotational assignment to the NBS Program Office from the National Measurement Laboratory, was quickly assigned to work with Reimann and “became his chief sidekick for the next few months.” Coursey recounted that Reimann always arrived at work very early—about 5:30 a.m.—and spent the next three hours doing research and making plans for the day. According to Coursey, “[Reimann] would give me assignments at 8:30 and then get on the phone. For the next eight or nine hours, he would call stakeholders, experts, standards groups, government officials—anyone he thought would be able to advise on quality and the nature of the new program. This not only gave him tremendous perspective on the different elements of quality in the nation, but it gave him increasing credibility with the community.”

During NBS’s 90th anniversary, NBS Director (from 1973 to 1989) Ernest Ambler reminisced on the Baldrige Award:

The assignment of managing the award came to us very quickly....... Curt [Reimann] had been trying for some time, but without success, to get the Executive Board to start a program at NBS on Quality Control, broadly construed and going beyond the measurements and standards aspects of it....... When the Malcolm Baldrige Award came along, it provided a good opportunity to get started on quality control methods, and Curt was the right person for the job, in fact the only person. The scope of the job would have stunned most people. Funds had to be raised from the private sector; various professional advisory groups were needed; a large number of qualified examiners had to be recruited; and they all had to be paid somehow. Curt went to work and the response from the private sector, much of it volunteer effort, was outstanding....... Many people went to work defining the exact nature of the program and the rigorous criteria for success. Inside the government, we all went to work for Curt Reimann. [Secretary of Commerce] Bill Verity asked for a progress report every week and saw to it that no bureaucratic roadblocks stood in our way....... The award established a very high reputation for thoroughness and objectivity. The application guidelines have now become so well‐known and highly regarded that they are widely used as a sort of textbook or roadmap to quality control by industry.

11 “The Birth of Baldrige”

12 Snyder, Jamie; DeMean, Valerie; Teo, Sharon; “The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award”

13 “Every Company Pursues Quality. This is for the Few that Achieve it,” promotional brochure, Foundation for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, 1988

14 “The Birth of Baldrige”

15 “The Birth of Baldrige”


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Created April 17, 2023, Updated April 26, 2023