Quality Leadership
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What Happened to Quality?

by Pat Townsend
and Joan Gebhardt

D uring the late 1980s, it looked as if quality would be the force unifying management and nonmanagement. It would cut the Gordian Knot of industrial relationships and make it possible for companies to earn money, keep their customers and employees happy, and be ethical -- all at once. It almost worked.

In a few instances, quality delivered for a while. One example: The Paul Revere Insurance Group in Worcester, Massachusetts, defined and implemented a quality process that hit all four measures for more than six years. Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Milwaukee adapted Paul Revere's approach and continues to enjoy the results. Baldrige winners also prosper, but the number of organizations that have managed to meet all four criteria still doesn't reach the triple digits.

For most, quality proved to be just another flavor of the month. It's not uncommon now to hear a U.S. senior business executive say, "Quality? Yeah, I think we did that in '91. Or was it '92? Hired one of the leading firms to do it for us."

What happened? And -- far more important -- is it too late to save the quality movement?

First, as to what happened, four negative forces come into play: lack of leadership, bad beginnings, reengineering and ISO 9000.

Perhaps the most damaging force is the presence of managers rather than leaders in the senior ranks of U.S. business. Managers trust numbers; leaders trust people, who then understand and use numbers. The United States' B-schools have made a profitable science out of producing technicians who have risen to positions of power while having little, if any, association with nonmanagement folks. Asking these executives to trust a degreeless junior employee with a decision that might impact the bottom line is akin to asking them to trust a Martian. How are they going to trust someone with whom they've never interacted? Leadership requires people skills, and leadership and quality are inseparable.

Bad beginnings also grow from emphasizing numbers. While it's true that a journey of a thousand miles starts with but a single step, if that first step lands in the wrong direction, then the trip will be a long and frustrating one. The American quality journey began with a combination of quality circles, W. Edwards Deming and a few large consulting firms. Quality circles aim too low by preaching the enlistment of 10 percent to 15 percent of the work force (What's wrong with the other 85 percent to 90 percent? Don't they have anything to contribute?) and ignoring active involvement of senior management.

Deming's magnificent humanity and uplifting emphasis on the individual worker's potential is ignored by virtually all of his "disciples" in their rush to define new measures and charts. Deming's statistical mastery is taken to define who he was. In fact, he was much more. Equally damaging, big consulting firms promise senior managers that, once they've attended an expensive course or two, they can get on with their own, more important work while the consulting firms define and run the organization's quality program.

Reengineering also makes a negative contribution to quality's reputation. Few people notice that reengineering is only a subset of a subset -- specifically, a subset of measurement, which is a subset of quality. While reengineering is a powerful and necessary subset with the potential for a tremendously positive impact on the bottom line, it's not the final solution. Reengineering appeals to senior managers because it reinforces their belief that the only people capable of making meaningful decisions are senior managers.

Unfortunately, too few organizations realize all the gains reengineering promises. By reducing everything to process control and by laying off droves of people considered superfluous, many post-reengineering organizations find themselves with diminished capacity for growth and an extremely hostile work force. Reengineering's chief proponent, Michael Hammer, established new standards for understatement when he offered the assessment, "We forgot about the people." Unfortunately, disillusioned companies are quick to couple reengineering and quality, and write them both off as a bad job.

It's equally devastating when companies substitute ISO 9000 for quality. ISO 9000 is a lazy option. One well-documented paper estimates that ISO 9000 covers about 10 percent of what the Baldrige covers. However, ISO 9000's popularity is easy to explain. In the '60s, '70s and early '80s, a subculture of "quality guys" who could manipulate numbers grew up in U.S. business. Then came the call to involve people at all levels and occupations. As quality's definition expanded to include both the emotional and rational, it began to slip away from the traditional quality control community.

When ISO 9000 (and the rest of the rapidly growing ISO family) came along, the quality control types felt vindicated. Charts and checksheets and micro-controls were back in style; trust and leadership were no longer of prime importance. Unfortunately, ISO 9000 and quality aren't the same. ISO 9000 allows a company to make concrete life preservers using slave labor, as long as the documentation is adequate. Quality has a broader vision. By disenfranchising the majority of employees, ISO 9000 is a giant step backwards.

Is it too late to save the quality movement? While the United States has squandered a wonderful opportunity to jump decisively ahead of the international business community using quality as a differentiation, quality's potential still remains. The Baldrige continues to be a valuable tool, especially when considering the changes made in the application process during the last two years. U.S. business's current interest in leadership also offers hope. Companies that encourage leadership at every level are halfway to quality. The measures listed earlier -- making money, keeping customers and employees happy, and being ethical -- are the measures of any successful quality effort. And there is no reason that all four cannot be achieved simultaneously.


About the authors

Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and four books: 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); and Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997). They may be reached at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com.


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