On a couple of occasions in this column, we have looked at the question of "What went wrong with total quality?"--a moderately
popular topic among those of us who spend time thinking about this quality stuff. Looking back, however, it is quite possible that we may have overthought the problem. We concentrated on the wrong word. We addressed the
word "quality" and thought serious thoughts, trying to divine what had not been understood about the word and had, thus, led to so many efforts that fell short of expectations.
re-examining the problem, however, we've come to the conclusion that the word that was never fully understood was "total." It just may be that simple.
It did--and does--sound so good, so
logical: "total quality" or "total quality management." At one point, the U.S. Navy concentrated on the word "management" and upgraded the phrase to "total quality leadership"
(while unfortunately upgrading little else about the thinking).
But the word that was never really taken seriously was "total." In any context other than a quality process, the word
"total" is assumed to mean "everything" or "everybody." The dictionary uses words like "complete," "entirety," "whole" and "absolute" when defining
"total." If you hear that some group or team is totally committed to something (winning a sports title, for instance), you automatically assume that every person in the group or team is doing everything they
can to help. The option of being a member of the group or team and not participating isn't even considered.
However, when it was placed in front of the phrase "quality management," the word
"total" somehow lost its meaning. Most so-called TQM efforts boiled down to, at best, "Of course it's total, I told them all to get better."
As health care prices start rising
again, as the Asian nations begin to recover, as the artificial barriers erected in many countries through the use of ISO 9000 begin to be torn down, the need for quality efforts that truly are "total" is
about to move back onto corporate agendas. When it does, it will be important to understand the mistakes of the past (and present) so that quality, like love, can be better the second time around.
What follows is a way to assess organizational efforts--either past efforts or ongoing processes. We believe that fewer than ten percent of U.S. companies can (or could in the past) honestly answer all of these
questions as they should be answered. In short, the test can serve as part of the post-mortem of a failed process or as an analysis tool for a system that needs to be made effective.
1. In the last 10
decisions senior management made in the name of "quality," whose behavior was expected to change?
If it was always, or usually, someone other than the senior decision makers, then they're
not practicing "total" quality, they're practicing quality by proclamation. Quality by proclamation, while popular, doesn't work. Just because the marketing folks claim it or the senior management announces it
in the annual report, it doesn't mean things are getting better. And if the senior managers are not improving what they are doing, if they are not obviously being affected by the quality process, there is little
incentive for anyone else to get serious.
2. In your organization, is there an easy answer to the question, "Where do I go with an idea for quality improvement?"
how few organizations have clearly defined avenues for employee participation other than, "Well, they just tell their supervisor." In a survey of 2,800 federal installations a few years ago, more than half
said they were practicing TQM. Yet the same survey revealed that the average number of employees actually doing anything to help their organizations improve was only 13 percent. How can something that actually involves
only 13 percent of the folks on the payroll be called "total"? Total is 100 percent, not 13 percent.
If fewer than that 100 percent of the people on a payroll are formally, structurally,
continuously enrolled in the quality process, forget about "total" quality. If you must give it a name, call it "partial quality management" and award yourself points for honesty.
3. Are small ideas captured?
How long does it take to implement an idea for shaving, say, 15 minutes a week from your operations? If it takes significantly longer to get an audience for the idea than
the idea is "worth," you're in trouble. Any process geared to look only at big ideas, taking months of careful study, isn't up to snuff.
4. When was the last time someone in the top layer of
management personally said "thank you" to someone in nonmanagement?
If it's been more than a week, you fail. It sounds pretty basic, but it's more than a measure of good manners. Simple
recognition shows interest in the people who deliver quality--and a degree of personal interaction essential to the quality process. Saying "thank you" is an act of leadership and leadership is vital to any
5. When was the last time a member of top management read something longer than three paragraphs about quality and continuous improvement--or leadership?
If the answer is
longer than a month, you're slipping backward. The best measure of an abiding commitment is a continuing investment of time and thought.
If you can't answer all five questions positively, the quality
effort under review is--or was--less than total. Happily, improvement is possible. In fact, with the involvement of senior management, rapid improvement is possible. But the trick just may be to make sure everyone
understands the word "total" in the same way. "Total" means "everyone." Every day. Total means 100-percent employee involvement. Active, actual, formal involvement. It can be done and more
easily than most folks think (or will tell you).
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).