Does Quality Have A Future?

King Richard I of England – or Richard the Lionheart – was around a real long time ago, between the 11th and 12th centuries. His time was pretty different to ours; there were no mobile phones, no internet, just ‘Heraldry’ – a weird system of coloured drawings on flags or shields that told you who that dude on the other side of the battlefield was – and whether you should chop him up with your broadsword or not. Going on holiday in King Richard’s time also meant saddling up your horse, slipping on a surplice and grabbing that shield with three lions passant guardant then sloping off to the Holy Land for a spot of rape, pillage and cannabilism – also known as; a ‘Crusade’.

Arguably, heraldry and crusading have faded somewhat from our lifestyles by the 21st century, but one concept from the Lionheart’s time has survived through to this very day. ‘Guilds’ were probably around well before the 11th century – but the application of the Scandinavian word meaning ‘payment’ to a craft-based society dates from around then. A guild in those days was an organisation of tradespeople who paid a due or sub and in return got support from other members and a guarantee that the organisation as a whole would strive to match each individual’s quality in craftsmanship. 

Incredibly, that is exactly what a guild does to this very day – so the past thousand years have not worn away the concept at all. The original guilds’ guidelines were, as its members might even say; ‘made to last’. Of course there have been some changes over that time; before King Richard headed off on Crusade he probably got the Armourers Guild to have a look at his shield and the Textilers Guild to touch up his banner. There’s not a lot of demand for those professions anymore but if you are a pharmacist today, you can join the Pharmacy Guild of New Zealand. Or, if you have forlorn dreams of making it in Hollywood – the NZ Writers Guild or Directors & Editors Guild of New Zealand are offering memberships. 

So what’s the difference between a Guild and an Association like; say, the Master Builders? To be honest; not a lot, just the age of the word and the implied attitude behind its choice. To call your association a ‘guild’ realistically means that you; a) are involved in some form of craft and b) as a group you take the quality of your workmanship seriously. That’s not to say that associations don’t, but guilds definitely do.

Quantity vs Quality

Which is easier said than done these days as most customers don’t give a stuff about quality. Seriously, they don’t! There is an infamous saying in the production industry – and elsewhere – that; ‘You can have anything you want: Fast, Cheap or Good. Pick any two.’

Now guess which two 99% of customers choose! I’ve even experienced this first hand having been involved in a service-related start up. Initially we had high-falutin’ ideas about offering a top tier service to customers willing to pay for top quality. We had to readjust our attitude very quickly once we found virtually every customer wanted the Fast/Cheap combination.



The Future of Craftsmanship

Also, as with the armourers and textilers of yesteryear, advancements in technology and changes in lifestyle are challenging the crafts of today. The advent of 3D printing in particular I can see is going to be tough on those who physically make anything – at least beyond the engineering or design phase anyway. A guy told me recently that entire sections of the latest Team New Zealand boat have been turned out of a 3D printer – and if they can do that who’s to say it won’t be possible to print off an entire house in the future? Including all its wiring and plumbing pre-installed?

If so, hopefully we’ll all be able to find/create new work to do instead and once we do; maybe we should apply the guild principles to whatever that may be; like a Guild of Computer Coders or the Social Media Posters’ Guild. It’s not so silly really; the pharmacists, screenwriters and film editors of our country didn’t have to call their associations ‘guilds’, they CHOSE to because they wanted to set a tone for their members to buy into. They wanted everyone to have pride in their work and to care about the quality of their craftsmanship. Even if their customers didn’t. 

Quality in workmanship is not innate, it has to be strived for. Ancient organisations like the Armourers and Textilers Guilds of King Richard’s time knew this. So they set up self-imposed guidelines for maintaining quality that somehow have survived innumerable wars, disasters, depressions, pandemics and technological advances – to last for a thousand years untouched. 

The next thousand starts with us.  

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