Monday, March 31, 2008

Remember this one: “Total Quality Management”?

As I have said before, firms often imitate each other, and that includes imitating silly things.

Speaking of silly things; Mark Zbaracki, a professor at Wharton, found himself examining Total Quality Management (TQM) techniques in the early 1990s, when the thing was at its heyday. He made extensive visits to five organisations – a defence contractor, a hotel, a hospital, a manufacturing firm and a government agency – to figure out how they came about adopting TQM.

A very consistent pattern emerged. Invariably, when management started to hear about this “new thing” called Total Quality Management, they signed up for seminars and conferences in which representatives from other firms spoke about their experiences with the implementation of TQM. There they would hear about the substantial improvements TQM had brought them, often larded with impressive statistics and commanding jargon. It didn’t take long and the managers became convinced that they too had to make work of adopting this new technique, or risk falling behind forever.

So they started sending their people to TQM training courses and hired consultants that specialised in the new techniques, through which they learned more stories about the power of TQM and its remarkable results. Soon, they put their considerable weight behind a pilot: one department would experiment with the new techniques, so that others could learn from them.

This was often followed by the introduction of a series of internal seminars, a quarterly TQM newsletter sent to all departments within the organisation, and the appointment of dedicated internal TQM experts. Subsequently, all these parties were told to publicise the firm’s early “success stories” to enthral others and raise their enthusiasm to embrace the new technique with equal vigour.

Soon, the newsletters found their way to people at other companies, and the organisation’s managers started to receive invites to come and share their success stories at TQM conferences and seminars. Yet, in reality, every success story also had its problems, and for every “success story” there were always a handful of failures. Yet, those stories did not find their way into the newsletters, the company’s external communications, or the manager’s seminar slide pack.

And in the conference room, the attending managers, who had heard about this new technique called “Total Quality Management”, were in awe of the substantial improvements that TQM had brought the speaker’s firm, and they were impressed with the gleeful statistics and commanding jargon. And they too went back to their firms, and pro-claimed that they really had to make work of adopting this new technique, or risk falling behind forever.