Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt


Maybe We Need a New Word?

When asked if they are interested in "quality," businesspeople these days often look almost offended. Either they've already done it, they've always done it, they once hired a TQM consultant to do it for them, or they've now hired an ISO consultant to do it for them. And, while products and services are unquestionably better than they were 10 or 15 years ago, there obviously remains a lot of room for improvement, the kind of improvement that will only happen in the context of a well-defined, wisely initiated and vigorously maintained quality process.

Maybe we need a new word for quality.

The concept of quality is as valid as ever and, when the Asian countries recover sufficiently from their economic woes to try to sell their way to complete health, it may be even more important than in the 1970s and 1980s. And next time, the competition won't come just in manufactured products, but in services as well. Quality will once again be the defining element on the economic battlefield. But too many American businesspeople claim to be tired of the word "quality."

Well, to be honest, not everyone is tired of the word. Advertisers still love it. Consumers still respond to it. Only business managers are tired of the word--middle managers tired of being beaten up with the "quality stick" while still being rewarded under old productivity scales, and senior managers tired of being told to "walk the talk" or "talk the walk."

Ironically, business managers and consumers are overlapping sets of humans. While not all consumers are business managers, virtually all business managers are consumers. And it's a good bet that the same business managers who've failed to attend a single quality team meeting this year are the same consumers who've never missed an opportunity to return an inadequate meal or a piece of shoddy merchandise.

So maybe we need a new word, something other than "quality," that sounds new and energizing. It can't be something with an already spotty track record (e.g., reengineering) or an obvious subset of a well-designed quality process (e.g., statistical process control or communications). The word should already be understood at a gut level by people both in their roles as businesspeople and as consumers.

Unfortunately, a thesaurus offers little help, with options such as value, worth, caliber, degree of excellence, grade, rank, class and merit. A dictionary provides a few possibilities, but the options lack excitement: character, property and trait. Imagine trying to interest someone in a total trait management process.

Perhaps the approach already taken by many companies is the best: Use a different adjective in front of the word "process," and generally avoid the word "quality" if possible. In other words, instead of a new word, we need a new phrase. Down that path lie "continual improvement process" and combinations including the word "excellence." There is some rough justice there because In Search of Excellence had at least as much to do with launching the American quality revolution as did W. Edwards Deming's Out of the Crisis or Philip Crosby's Quality Is Free.

At the ninth World Congress for Total Quality in Mumbai, India, in early January, Madhav Mehra, the first elected chairman of the World Quality Council, gave "business transformation" as his favorite replacement. He said he was afraid that the word "quality" had become too narrowly defined and that using "business transformation" would again allow such concepts as innovation to be readily accepted--or even expected--component parts of the umbrella term.

All-important is the need to avoid the term total quality management. In fact, perhaps we should treat that phrase, and its snappy acronym TQM, as the scapegoat, heap all of the problems, misconceptions and fallen efforts onto its mythical shoulders, and chase it out of view, to languish among other abandoned concepts.

If we did that, options such as business transformation and complete quality process--with its implication that what has gone before has fallen short in large part because it wasn't "complete"--are open. The acronym CQP isn't too bad; BT probably wouldn't work. The medical option, continual quality improvement (and its acronym, CQI), might work outside the field of medicine but, inside that field, it's often thought of as the equivalent of TQM and has also fallen on doubt-filled times.

How about a hybrid--such as continual excellence? Or complete excellence? Or business excellence transformation?

Suggestions are welcome. Is complete quality process (admittedly our favorite) different enough, while still being descriptive enough of the central idea? Would business transformation be sufficiently inviting, intriguing or descriptive?

Please send your ideas--along with as much explanation as you choose--to us prior to the end of February. If enough folks send in their ideas (either personal preferences or words and phrases currently used by their organizations), we'll use April's column to discuss the options.


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).

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