Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 100
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Starving for Quality

A review of total quality management reveals ways to check its progress and discovers signs of trouble.

Perhaps you've heard of the trouble snakes sometimes have with their dinners. Some snakes' eyes exceed the size of their throats and they die with their dinners firmly wedged in the wrong place, half in and half out. Other snakes' ambition is too modest and their dinners are too meager -- easy to catch, but providing little nourishment. These snakes starve.

Organizations that introduce total quality management (T.Q.M.) are like these troubled snakes. According to J. Richard Hackman, of Harvard, and Ruth Wageman, of Columbia University, most resemble the starving ones. These firms install T.Q.M. projects that fail to require anyone to change. They merely provide window dressing that effects no change and leave puzzled executives wondering what went wrong.

That's one conclusion of a study Hackman & Wageman conducted to assess the current status of T.Q.M. in the U.S. Another finding provides a set of questions we can ask ourselves to assess our firms' commitment to total quality, and by considering them we can learn if we're really using T.Q.M. in our organizations.

Make an exercise out of it. Answer these questions and find out if you're starving for quality:

    1. Do your people regularly assess customer requirements for your goods and services and do you measure performance against these requirements?
    2. Do you choose suppliers on the basis of quality, rather than cost, and are your people working with your suppliers to improve their quality practices?
    3. Do your people come together in cross-functional teams to find ways to make improvements?
    4. Do your people use scientific reasoning and statistics to discover and test strategies to improve work processes?
    5. Do your people use techniques to gather and analyze diverse ideas, for example, brainstorming?
    6. Do you try to learn of "best practices" of other firms renowned for those practices? (For example, learning of best customer service practices from a firm that is famous for its customer service.)
    7. Do you use involvement techniques to tap the rich resource of ideas for improvements that employees possess, such as employee suggestion systems?

If you answered "yes" to these questions, T.Q.M. is alive and well in your firm. But if you answered "no," then regardless of slogans and rhetoric to the contrary, you aren't practicing T.Q.M.

Hackman & Wageman also discovered a set of mistakes executives often make implementing T.Q.M. For example, executives frequently strip away the use of statistics and experimentation that help analyze problems. These executives insist they're "managing by fact," yet they reject the very tools that give them facts.

A large majority of firms also modify their reward systems. They create incentives to favor quality goals even though W.E. Deming, the founder of T.Q.M., explicitly condemns such practices. He argues such incentives focus attention on narrow objectives and confound the larger goal of promoting a healthy business.

Hackman & Wageman also decry the astonishing number of management improvement programs that are gathering under the T.Q.M. banner, whether they belong there or not. For example, employee empowerment programs often accompany T.Q.M. efforts even though the founders of the movement insist T.Q.M. is a top-down management effort, and is not intended to redistribute authority. If such programs fail, is T.Q.M. to blame?

And finally, they note that executives usually fail to evaluate T.Q.M. programs. Do such programs improve anything? Are customers' requirements being met more frequently? Are employees more productive? Are rejection or complaint rates lower?

Without rigorous evaluation of T.Q.M., using the same scientific reasoning and statistics these programs teach us to use to improve our own work processes, T.Q.M. programs can't end with success. They'll merely fade away and be forgotten. And that's exactly the prediction Hackman & Wageman make of the total quality movement. It's a prediction they regret. They feel T.Q.M. has great promise if only we didn't botch it up so badly. Perhaps we can heed their warning.

Reference: Hackman, J. Richard, and Ruth Wageman (1995). Total Quality Management: Empirical, Conceptual, and Practical Issues. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40 (1995), pp. 309-342.

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