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Columnists: Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Photo: Pat Townsend


Photo: Joan Gebhardt


Quality and Democracy: Common Ground

Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt



When the Berlin Wall came down more than a decade ago, one of the results was that businesses in East Germany--which had done well within East Germany and exporting to other communist countries--were forced to compete in the open marketplace with democratic countries. Not a single East German firm was commercially viable--not one.

This example underscores an important point as America heads into its 228th year of existence. There are many similarities between the form of government that Thomas Jefferson and others had in mind and our modern vision for how a “quality company” should operate. That vision--with its reliance on informed employees taking an active role in the continual improvement of the company--is far different from what was found in failed operations established on the communist model.

There is a series of similarities between a well-established democratic republic and a successful commercial or governmental/nonprofit operation:

* In both, the individual is thought to have value. In totalitarian operations, whether they’re government or business organizations, individuals are thought of as inter-changeable parts with little unique value. In such operations, the turnover rate is always high--even if people have to dig under walls to get out.

* Neither the United States nor a “quality organization” would function well as a pure, everybody-vote-on-everything democracy. Such an approach would be too clumsy and time-consuming, and it would not make best use of everyone’s individual talents.

* Both are held together by mutual trust. The glue that holds our nation together is that, for the most part, we trust each other to do everything from stopping at a red light to paying taxes to living according to the law. In the same way, the employees of a quality organization trust each other, knowing that when something is passed to one of them, the previous person in the process flow did his or her best with it.

* Both must be open to evolution. Our nation has changed how it does things while staying true to its mission and goals. An organization in pursuit of quality must also be able to adapt, to evolve as different opportunities and tools become evident. But, at the same time, it must stay true to itself, to its mission, to its culture and to its values.

* Rights and responsibilities are always present. People in a democratic republic vote for how things should be done tomorrow, but an individual doesn’t have to vote. Participation in a quality process is a vote for how things should be done tomorrow, but a person doesn’t have to do that either. If someone chooses not to participate in a quality process, he or she forfeits any right to complain.

* Participation is possible at several levels. Depending on decisions that an individual makes about his or her education and exactly where he or she wants to spend time and energy, a person can get involved in the community in a number of ways. Joining a town committee, running for office in a community organization, taking an active role in public meetings or simply voting are all possibilities. At work, people can continue to grow and learn as they “climb the corporate ladder,” or they might choose to answer a call to volunteer for company-sponsored activities in the local community, or to be an active member of a quality team. The crucial point for an individual is to be aware of what is happening--in one’s country and one’s company--and to be actively involved.

Remember that being passive and accepting the idea that “it’s going OK; there aren’t any changes needed” is simply not based in fact. The founders of the United States didn’t get it perfectly right the first time. One needs to look no further than the Constitution’s 27 amendments to know that even the best of beginnings can always use some improvement. The point is that good men and women took the time to improve the initial rules for government, and it’s now one of the oldest in the world.

Companies need their employees to take an active role in defining the future, just as a nation needs its current citizens. People need to keep looking for ways to improve, and they need to keep working on building a community that’s the envy of others.

As Americans enjoy their having made it to birthday No. 227, they can all rightfully take pride in what they’ve helped to build and sustain, and they can use that mutual experience as a model for their organizational experiments.

About the authors

Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and six books, including Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997); How Organizations Learn: Investigate, Identify, Institutionalize (Crisp Publications, 1999); and Quality Is Everybody's Business (CRC Press, 1999). Pat Townsend has recently re-entered the corporate world and is now dealing with “leadership.com” issues as a practitioner as well as an observer, writer and speaker. He is now chief quality officer for UICI, a diverse financial services corporation headquartered in the Dallas area. Letters to the editor regarding this column can be sent to letters@qualitydigest.com.