Posted by jlubans on May 21, 2020


Not that long ago, Total Quality Management (TQM) was the bee’s knees, the cat’s pajamas, the fox’s socks in management theory and practice with adherents in business and among not-for-profits.
Nowadays, one rarely hears of it. Was TQM then a flash-in-the-pan, a 9-day wonder, a fad (gasp)?
TQMs components were of hardy stuff and are still in use today. You can thank TQM for the high quality of most manufactured goods. Wm. Deming, the name most associated with TQM, brought statistical rigor to quality control in the car industry and, by extension and adaptation, to many other industries.
TQM was radical. It sought to upend the traditional bureaucratic model of organization and to de-activate heavy-handed top down decision-making.
Hence, its mandate to “drive out fear” in the organization; its emphasis on high functioning teams; the use of data for decision making; and its underlying respect for all staff members, not just those in the corner offices. When teaching, Deming was famous for giving all of his students As. He made clear he had no interest in judging other human beings.
And, it was expected for all staff to be on the lookout for and to make improvements daily (continuous improvement).
Another key to TQMs success is listening (in compassionate and action-taking ways) to the client, the patient, the user, the customer.
The organizations that listen – ones in which golden rule customer service is king – have reaped positive benefits for decades.
One of the biggest users of user feedback and statistical analysis are hospitals and doctors’ offices to the benefit of patients. Where do you think all those improvements have come from? TQM.
Conclusively, there’s one ubiquitous organizational pillar that TQM sought to demolish: performance appraisal.
Eschewing PA symbolized the different mindset behind TQM vs. the hierarchy. If fear was to be driven out, well then one annual fear-inducer was performance appraisal.
In a PA-less organization, managers and employees are to address problems together. Feedback between the two is to be immediate. If a boss observes odd behavior she is obliged to communicate to the employee immediately not consign it as a cryptic note to the evaluation folder for Evaluation Day.
So, under TQM there’s no PA.
Want a clue about an organization’s real (not the frippery in its mission statement) philosophy? Do they have performance appraisal?
If not, you are looking at an organization vastly different from the hierarchy.
Once you remove the annual ritual, managers and staff are obliged to talk about what they are doing and what they would like to be doing. The manager has the responsibility to engage the worker and talk through issues.
By implication, the manager has to cultivate social skills by which to empower his subordinates to communicate openly.
When successful there’s an honesty and a trust among staff not to be found in most hierarchies.
Reflecting on my career, I was early involved in systems analysis (even co-authored a book on it). Also, I have always been keen on getting the customer’s viewpoint on how we were doing, Indeed, in every job I conducted several what I called “user surveys” that provided good information on how we were doing and how we could improve.
Apart from my interest in management topics I also had a strong interest in service delivery and once I left my first job, I began to promote services to our clients and customers.
Again, I edited (and wrote 40% of) a major book on the concept.
Then, taking time off to get a second master’s in public administration with a strong emphasis on organizational development I began to focus on leadership and organizational structures.
That’s about when I connected with TQM and was able to make major improvements at my next job, improvements that had been denied or delayed for two decades. My boss advocated for TQM concepts, as did his boss.
That tangible support made for a safe environment in which to experiment.
We reorganized into teams and that was a positive in many cases but of course there were holdouts.
As always, when a new system of doing business comes about, there are holdouts, nay sayers, and the “resistance”.
Change can be painful, so some prefer to dodge it completely.
When we made sincere efforts to develop teams and to free up staff to think about their jobs, we got very good results.
When some supervisors only gave lip service to TQM and pretended to empower staff, they got mediocre results, as expected.
Of course, that was never admitted; I saw it in the production statistics!
When TQM fails it is not due to TQM but to the entrenched office holders who benefit from the status quo. Why should they change – especially if wedded to tradition and not overly imaginative or up for risk taking – or give up any of their power? I mean really!
There are many managers who believe “both management and leadership have got to come from the top (emphasis added), from those who hold and exercise programmatic responsibilities, specifically administration.”
With all due respect, this view mistrusts subordinates. Do you really believe the work force is largely made up of people who do not think?
If you rule an organization of sheep followers, people unwilling and incapable of thinking for themselves then top-down is the only way.
Indeed, unless you understand why you are doing what you are doing you cannot possibly have an opinion of much value.
That job is best left to the professionals, presumably the only thinkers in the organization!
Many - not all - of my support staff, the followers, were quite capable and imaginative and once given freedom to experiment and to comment on goals large and small, I would have been a fool to ignore their very good ideas and advice.
There were those who offered nothing, but there were many who enjoyed the freedom (power) and made the workplace better for customers, the organization and themselves.
As an afterthought, I'd like to comment on the difficulty of adapting someone else's ideas. For example, Wm. Deming knew clearly what he meant by TQMs mantra of "drive out fear". The rest of us may not know, but we do the best we can.
At one time I had great respect for consultants who claimed to know a new system of organizing, like TQM.
My admiration has diminished.
Often the consultant's done a quick study of the principles and you wind up getting a Reader's Digest précis. Fairly accurate, but much left out.
And rarely do consultants speak from having personally applied TQM (or any other new system) to an organization.
I remember leading a so-called "Future Search" of some 100 staff at a large university. There were three of us serving as consultants, and two of us had done such an event for our own organization.
However, the FS was based on Marvin Weisbord's writings and directions.
We adhered as closely as we could, but on the second day we found ourselves stuck without a conclusion, an overall inability to come to terms on how to achieve the stated goal. In other words what was the organization willing to give up to get to the Promised Land?
While many good things happened, we could not point to a clear direction into the future.
I believe Mr. Weisbord would have had a bit more to show for those two days of hard work than we three consultants did. Or, he might well have declined the invitation to lead the search!

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

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