Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered about Baldrige

Tom Peters

I wish the J. Peterman Company of Lexington, Ky., would win 1991 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Their Winter 1990 catalog, “Owner’s Manual No. 8,” just arrived; as usual, I dropped what I was doing and sat down to read it. No photos, just hand-drawn illustrations. And wonderful, whimsical text. For instance, I’ll surely buy the M1604 (page 42): “Weeding my way through the jungle of ‘biomechanically perfect’ and ‘orthopedically engineered’ and ‘air-injected’ running-jumping-springing-catapulting shoes out there, I believe I have found the ultimate walking shoe. (Walking, after all, is what most of us do most of the time.) The M1604 is not particularly bad to look at …” Lovely.

The J. Peterman catalog is fun. The products and presentation are “world-class quality” writ large. A few thousand more J. Petermans and we could kiss our economic woes goodbye.

Yet I fear that J. Peterman will never bag a Baldrige. If you’ve ever glanced at the award application, brought to you by statisticians from our very own National Institute of Standards Technology at the U.S. Department of Commerce, you’d know why. With all due respect, I have a feeling that the number crunchers might not get the same buzz from J. Peterman’s wares verse that I do. (How do you quantify “buzz”?)

I’m actually a big fan of the Baldrige. It’s taken us a long way fast toward putting quality on the American map. So “A” grades for intent, spirit and, above all, symbolism. Yet I’m troubled that the Baldrige celebrates a lifeless form of quality. While better than nothing, it misses tomorrow’s crowded competitive boat. (“Better to make reliable products that customers don’t want than crappy ones that customers don’t want,” says a friend, putting a positive spin on it.)

I got antsy when Motorola, Xerox, IBM and GM copped the lion’s share of the early big-manufacturer awards. (And J. Peterman wasn’t anywhere on the list. Incredibly, the “examiners” have had the devil’s own time finding any small company winners.) Despite remarkable gains, the four honored giants remain bureaucratic quagmires—”buzz” and “fun” aren’t among the words most frequently heard in their corridors.

I’m afraid customer-service consultant Jack Falvey got it right in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed musing. He called GM’s ballyhooed Saturn “Roger’s revenge” (after former GM boss Roger Smith). Falvey laments that GM has suffered yet another failure of imagination, producing an “acceptable imitation of a Japanese car” that will “give the impression that one is driving a Japanese car.” Just the ticket for “revolutionizing” U.S. automaking, eh?

Falvey’s piece appeared the same week that BusinessWeek put quality on its cover. The feature overflows with the D-word: dazzle. A Japanese executive, Chairman Kenichi Yamamoto of Mazda, dismissively notes that “any manufacturer can produce according to statistics.” (Sorry, Dr. Deming!) BusinessWeek reports that Japan has now become obsessed with “miryokuteki hinshitsu,” or things gone right. (A traditional Detroit measurement of quality has been TGW, things gone wrong. This “second phase” moves beyond “atarimae hinshitsu,” or taken for granted (statistically up to snuff) quality. A Mitsubishi exec says the new idea is the “personality of the product.” (Add “personality” to that “soft” word list!)

Lexus. Accord. The United Colors of Benetton. Apple Computer. Sony. Sun Microsystems. Microsoft. The Body Shop. Olivetti. Nordstrom. Ford of 1915. GM of 1925. IBM of 1960. People Express of 1983. (Not to mention J. Peterman!)

All of the above bring to mind taboo words— “dazzle,” “bewitch,” “personality,” “delight,” “Wow” (the last of these, always capital W, is a favorite of matchless grocer Stew Leonard). Sure, statistically reliable output is part of their stories. And I certainly don’t belittle the need, even in 1990, for 99 percent of American firms to get cracking with their SPC (statistical process control) charts. But they’re simply not the whole picture when it comes to quality.

(Further evidence: Research done by service expert Ron Zemke shows that over one-third of the difference between companies rated superior and inferior at customer satisfaction comes from way those firms handle product snafus. Forget whether or not widget works. It’s how decent you are when it doesn’t that really counts. Got that, techies?)

The Baldrige award is wonderful. The Baldrige process is tragically flawed. When it comes to such crucial intangibles as soul-deep worker involvement, leader passion, customer perception, and dazzle, the “standards and technology” gang are out to lunch. Worse still, I’ve seen signs that their “passion” for procedures is leading Baldrige applicants to create excessive bureaucracy in pursuit of the prize. Meanwhile, the scoring system is strangely silent on the topic of bureaucracy per se. (How else could the four above mentioned firms have won?) Yet bureaucracy is the chief impediment to genuine empowerment, which in turn is the chief ingredient of sustaining quality improvement.

Quality and competitiveness are synonymous. But first you must get the definition of quality “right.” For a rousing start, send away today for your own J. Peterman Company catalog. Reviewing it may contribute more to your economic well-being than chasing a Baldrige award.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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