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Columnists: Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Photo: Pat Townsend


Photo: Joan Gebhardt


Looking Back

Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt



October is the 20th anniversary of our involvement in quality. In October 1983, Pat started his first post-Marine Corps job at the Paul Revere Insurance Group in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was a loosely-defined position with a vague title. The company had decided to do quality, and although they weren’t sure what it entailed, Pat’s background in leadership and writing seemed like it might be useful.

It was an interesting time in quality. Japanese cars and electronics had American firms on the run; the NBC White Paper “If Japan Can Do It, Why Can’t We?” had first been shown in 1980, and its impact was still being felt; and people like Tom Peters, W. Edwards Deming, Joseph M. Juran, and Phil Crosby were beginning--finally--to be noticed and, to varying degrees, listened to.

Until then, practically all quality efforts had been in manufacturing industries, placing Paul Revere Insurance Group noticeably ahead of the curve in the service industry with its stated intent to define and implement a quality process. It was, in fact, so far ahead of the curve that it couldn’t find a consultant who could string the words quality process and service organization together in the same sentence. The company was pretty much on its own.

As it turned out, the lack of available outside expertise became a major factor in some of the most important decisions made at Paul Revere with regards to the definition and implementation of their quality has value process. Because there was no consultant to carefully map out a long drawn-out process, the Paul Revere quality steering committee was left with no choice but to do things logically.

For instance, these questions, answers and conclusions:
Question: Who should we involve in this?
Answer: Is there anyone we want to leave out? Nobody, right?
Conclusion: OK, so everybody’s in.
The decision to proceed with 100 percent employee involvement from the outset was so glaringly obvious that it didn’t even make it into the minutes of the quality steering committee meeting in which the decision was made.

Question: When can we get going?
Answer: Well, what’s involved? We need to split the company into teams, we need to train team leaders, and we need to set up some sort of quality department structure. We should be able to get that done by the end of the year, shouldn’t we?
Conclusion: The first meeting of the quality steering committee was in May 1983; the process was begun in January 1984--eight months later.

By the time it was launched and underway, Pat was the director of the process. Awareness that the process as implemented at Paul Revere was an out-of-the-mainstream approach came early on. Among the characteristics that stood out as different were, of course, 100 percent employee participation and the quick start but also on the odd list were the emphasis on recognition, gratitude and celebration; blending of a process/value analysis effort (doing the right things or re-engineering) with the quality team effort (doing things right); recognition of the importance of leadership and communications as integral components of the effort; the absolute need for personal involvement of the CEO/president and his or her direct reports; and the use of measurement at all levels. None of these components were unusual (other than 100 percent involvement and the quick start); it was doing them all together from the first day that was unusual.

In the years that followed, each of the separate components of the Paul Revere process--re-engineering, leadership, and various takes on measurement (ISO, Six Sigma, etc.)--was put forward as the answer, all by itself. Each proved to be exactly what might have been expected based on the Paul Revere experience: a partial solution at best.

The Paul Revere process was, by all measures, a huge success. In 1986, Tom Peters called it the best quality process in any service organization in North America. It earned a site visit from the Baldrige Award folks in 1988 (the inaugural year of the award), and it made/saved millions of dollars for the company. It was also the basis for our first book--Commit to Quality--and the catalyst for 12 years on the speaker’s circuit.

Next month: A report on the years since leaving Paul Revere Insurance Group and what has changed and what hasn’t changed in the quality world since our first experience.

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.