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DATA SANITY: A Quantum Leap to Unprecedented Results

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Why Did Total Quality Management Fail?

Employees take their cues from management.

Do top managers still view financial performance as the sole indicator of success, despite mouthing platitudes about dazzled customers and fulfilled employees? Is there a point when reductions are done excessively in the name of squeezing out a few more percentage points of profit, moving companies from their “ideal weight” to a state of near-anorexia?

Shouldn’t success factors include happy customers, more motivated and committed workers, investment in communities, and concern for the environment? Is it possible to create a company whose objectives are worth sacrifice by those who work in it and by the society it serves?

Focusing solely on the numbers must be replaced by a philosophy of focusing on what drives the numbers. Happier customers require happier employees. Has today’s “bigger… better… faster… more… now” society come to the point where it is not only ignoring human needs, but demeaning them?

Work has become increasingly cerebral, and companies can’t treat new employees the way they treated those who worked with a pick and shovel—people won’t let themselves be treated like parts of a machine.

A key challenge in implementing teams, especially self-directed work teams, is eliminating the traditional parent-child management relationship. To be truly empowered, team members should be trained in solving problems, monitoring quality, conducting meetings, and resolving conflict through ongoing developmental sessions, typically one per month. Norms need to be established around the issues of leadership, membership, and processes.

The result of such an environment is to make performance improvement an issue of self-interest rather than management mandate. Otherwise, productivity and quality problems will never be solved. Employee satisfaction is the major factor affecting customer satisfaction. When employees feel valued and find personal satisfaction in their jobs, they will go to extraordinary lengths to exceed customer expectations.

Front-line workers have a message for managers about why quality efforts may not be working quite as well as planned: They feel as if they are languishing in a limbo of unfulfilled promises, inadequate training, and stalled change efforts.

Other front-line observations: Managers speak the language, but don’t behave differently—budgets, schedules, and daily routines never vary. Quality is perceived more as an adjunct program involving more communication than substance. Many mid-level managers perceive it as a lot of quick little fixes that shouldn’t require changing the system. If anything, quality objectives tend to get in the way of performance!

“Our VP is the world’s greatest cheerleader,” said one employee. “He’s out there shouting, ‘Go, Team!’ everyday. Someday I’m going to ask him: ‘What makes you think we’ve got teams here?’” The front-line employees need specific job training that helps them make real changes to their jobs—not more talk and theory about quality.

Where did executive and middle management fail?

Management skills need to change to require more coaching than bossing. There can be the perception that workloads will increase because helping people develop new skills and expertise takes time away from the “real” work (at least, that’s the excuse). Hoping that “this too shall pass,” some will even silently resist by avoiding working with teams entirely.

A deeper, more real reason may be hidden in psychology: “What does this do for me and my job in the future? What’s going to be left here for me?” This managerial resistance in turn makes it too easy for employees to use “managerial inaction” as an excuse for resisting changes themselves. Training in quality skills must be supplemented with support and processes that address fear and resistance and help managers through this awkward, but inevitable, transition.

Managers can no longer view new quality responsibilities—coaching, managing by walking around, developing self-directed work teams, teaching empowerment—as extra duties. How can top leaders help?

  • Make quality a main agenda item at staff meetings, holding briefings on quality progress, and publicly recognizing successful quality efforts.
  • Make mangers the quality trainers, which creates ownership and a critical mass of champions who in turn exert a powerful influence on other initially reluctant managers.
  • Bring employees from all levels together to form quality councils and teams.
  • Include principles of quality management in managers’ performance criteria: Implementing quality management, directing efforts toward self-empowered work teams, and creating open communication processes developing capacities of staff.

In my notes I have this great quote from an editorial: “Why does TQM fail? Maybe because we’ve locked the lid on the pressure cooker, turned up the heat, and kept one hand clamped over the release valve. We need to make time for change, stop asking for it, or get ready to clean the kitchen when the lid blows.”

Pressures of the moment are destructive to a learning environment. There must be time for reflection and analysis, to think about strategic plans, dissect customer needs, assess current work systems, and invent new products and services. Employees must be given the skills to use this time wisely.

It involves more than simply looking at obviously dysfunctional processes and attitudes: It involves admitting that the attitudes and behaviors that have gotten some companies to their current level of success will no longer work in the next 10 years. There is no choice but to change. Top leaders must create for the management, and management must in turn create for the front-line, a safe environment where people are willing to take risks and be held accountable for their actions. The true challenge lies in finding out how uncomfortable people can be during change and still feel safe. There is more of a tendency for people to complain and deny the change than it is for them to find safety levels that create action. It’s important to allow for some grieving in a change process, but getting too comfortable in sorrow inhibits needed action.

Failure to integrate quality into organizational structure

There’s little question that mainstreaming quality—working it into strategic organization operations—is the best way to make it pay off. Typically, the “boutique” approach, setting up a “quality department” to create small scale successes that become the groundwork for somehow influencing the planning processes and operations of the organization, is what is used. Tom Peters says that this approach virtually guarantees that quality will get stalled as “internal programs run by technocrats.” It must become “the religion, organizing logic, and culture of the firm.”

Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School states: “When TQM efforts fail, it is because they are mounted as programs, unconnected to business strategy, rigidly and narrowly applied, and expected to bring about miraculous transformations in the short term without management lifting as much as a finger.”

The key to merging quality planning with operational and strategic planning is better information—about customers and about the rest of its industry. Quality has been made a peripheral issue for too long. There is no longer the luxury of spending years on a quality learning curve. The transition must be brought down from several years to between now and the next planning cycle. There is no choice but to actually be talking in quality terms and emphasizing the customer as plans are developed.

How to tie quality programs into strategic planning:

  • Don’t get bogged down on internally focused training or consciousness raising. Focus on leadership. Some knowledge gaps will have to be filled in, but a good CEO can do an 80 percent job of filling that gap in an afternoon.
  • What are your present quality efforts costing you? Include warranties, repairs, problem solving, prevention, measurement, and monitoring. What is your current return on this investment?
  • What gets customers? What keeps them? What makes them go away?
  • Customer data must be collected and used as part of planning. It goes far beyond the ubiquitous “customer surveys,” which typically lack the focus and precision needed to determine what the data actually means.
  • Get actionable information that lets you predict what customers will do if you make some kind of change—not how happy they are on a “1 to 5 scale” with generic customer service attributes.
  • Feed data back on two or three significant factors such as shorter cycle times, lower costs, customer retention, as well as on internal measurements, such as error rates or rework reduction (improvements of 50 percent or higher are not unusual).
  • Abandon programs that don’t have much effect and watch your competition closely.


Current management practices still cling onto their paradigms and try to adapt the latest philosophy to existing archaic frameworks in the manner of “the tail wagging the dog.” Quality zealots do not help by their well-meaning but misguided and expensive training programs with assurances to management, “But it will take time! You must be patient!” If anything, the pendulum may have even swung too far in the opposite direction with the “immediate results” philosophy espoused by Six Sigma. The accelerated need for change and more sophisticated customers are going to force organizations to face, finally, the human behavioral issues that even the best training on “processes, tools, and good information” still blindly ignore.

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