Beware Politically Correct TQM

Tom Peters

Hangnails? Apply TQM before bed. Lost market share? Two tablespoons of TQM will do the trick. Too much rain? TQM, twice a day. Too little rain? TQM, of course.

Need I spell it out? If you’ve missed Total Quality Management (uh, TQM), you haven’t even glanced at the business pages or bookstore shelves in the last 18 months.

“What exactly does TQM mean?” a frustrated friend asks. “Whatever whoever is using it wants it to mean,” is my unhelpful—but honest—reply. It has something to do with quality, of course, but also with almost any other cause the proponent happens to be championing that day.

A peck of past columns testify that I’m rabid about the need for better U.S. product quality. But some magic, infinitely flexible elixir called TQM is not the answer to all of America’s vexing business problems. In fact, TQM often looks suspiciously like the latest act in a long-running farce called Revenge of the Number Nerds. The quantified “q-word” quality—seems to be crowding out the far more important and messier “c-word”—customers.

Customers bleed. Customers weep. Customers hurt. Customers are capricious. Customers are testy. Customers are ridiculous. Customers don’t listen. And: Customers and customers alone pay the salary that puts your kids through college.

Americans, never long on quality (forget all the nostalgic prattle about “the golden days of craftsmanship”), needed to be rudely awakened to the topic 15 years ago. Some got the message. A few translated it into definitive action. But a lot missed the point or muffed the translation. Quality requires top-of-the-agenda attention for another decade, and lots of sustaining attention forever after. But to admit that we’ve still got miles to go is not to feed the politically correct “TQM is all” habit. Speed, a sweeping corporate imperative, is different from quality/TQM. Innovation, another all encompassing imperative, is different. Likewise, globalism. And customers are a lot different from TQM.

The most important difference is that an abiding focus on customers forces you to embrace joyfully the irrational, the subjective, the emotional, the perceptual—and to do so as a priority, no matter how slippery you find it. Quality, as charted and graphed by the cold statistics our number nerds love so much, is a necessary but insufficient condition for inducing customer love and loyalty.

Number ninnies, who were cost-control fanatics 10 years ago, adore the quantifiable ramifications of TQM. And its cousin SPC. Ahem, Statistical Process Control. And MRP. Materials Requirements Planning, natch. (MRP even comes in flavors: MRP I, MRP II. Computer software for executing MRP II, of course, is more expensive than that for mere MRP I—why else bother?) And then there’s just-in-time, whoops, JIT.

But the numbers nuts, despite (or because of) the massive Baldrige application (Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award or “MBNQA,” as one correspondent lovingly labeled it), don’t get it. Real participative management, Baldrige categories notwithstanding, is about elusive characteristics such as dignity and worth, much more than computer-aided suggestion tracking systems. Real customer loyalty is as much or more about listening, listening, and then listening harder still than it is about zero-variance manufacturing processes.

Our biggest corporations are sorely in need of major soul transplants. And slurpy kisses applied to the toenails of the great TQM-god are not the whole story. What did 1990’s Baldrige get IBM? Chairman John Akers asked something like that recently, wondering aloud why all the firm’s quality graphs are heading north, while market share slinks south.

Major corporate soul surgery includes, but is not limited to: (1) wholesale destruction of bureaucracy and removal of bureaucrats (the Baldrige application largely ignores this, befitting a document largely drafted by bureaucrats); (2) a commitment to self-management based on an almost mindless belief in the limitless decency and curiosity of workers, not on cost-benefit calculations; (3) glee at having customers lead you around by the nose in a whimsical way that boggles the number crunchers’ latest golly-gee expert systems; and (4) a healthy, sky-high regard for intuition, spirit, and a hundred other “s-words.” (S, as in soft.)

Seventeenth-century French philosopher Rene Descartes (father of rational, linear logic) is not dead. He, along with also- still-kicking Frederick Taylor (of factory stopwatch fame), is leading big American corporations astray. This time, the French philosopher-logician and his clock-clicking sidekick have come clothed in TQM garb.

Have I gone too far in venting my spleen? Of course! But not as far as many who are making ridiculous, encompassing claims for TQM. (TQM is now very camp in the federal bureaucracy, which should tell you something.)

By all means do your TQM, SPC, MRP I, MRP II, JIT. … And do apply for the MBNQA. But while moving on these essentials, understand that you’re still in the starting gate regarding the value-driven, mushy-by-definition, customer-aimed obsession demanded by the ludicrously competitive markets of the ’90s.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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