Total Quality Management was a well-intentioned flop in the US. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert reminisces how elements of TQM turned into value-destroying quagmires thanks to management’s inability to communicate.
One of the best ways to feel old is to try telling stories about daft management fads you’ve survived to a co-worker who hadn’t been born during the time your stories takes place. Those ‘tell me about life before the telegraph, grandpa!’ moments that make you weary and depressed. I’m smarting from one of those right now, having tried to convey how awful up the Total Quality Management fad was to a younger teammate. Makes me want to go grumble into a pint, even though it’s six a.m.
For those unfamiliar with it, TQM was a management fad that enraptured executives back in the eighties and nineties. The US Navy fell in love with TQM in 1985, causing it to spread quickly to the rest of the US military establishment. This inspired lots of commercial businesses to copy it. If you’ve ever heard someone brag about their company’s ‘Malcolm Baldridge;’ award, that’s where it came from. For most of the 1990s, every office building featured at least one MBA haunting its corridors and babbling about ‘quality metrics.’ I got involved on the tail end of the USAFs infatuation with TQM in the late 90s and immediately came to loathe it.
To be fair, TQM’s guiding principles weren’t inherently awful. Ensuring that your work products are regularly improved through systemic analysis and continuous incremental improvement makes a lot of sense. If you make widgets, it’s in your organisation’s long-term best interests to make better widgets, make them more efficiently, and reduce defects. From an academic perspective, this was (and still is!) a Darned Good Idea. That’s why the guiding philosophy behind TQM was never really at issue. What drove everyone to violent rage were the godawful implementations of it.
As the consultants love to say, ‘It’s not the end result that matters, it’s the process of getting there.’
Case in point: as I groused to my not-terribly-younger co-worker, our organisation got hopelessly bogged down in a TQM ephemera and never implemented any meaningful quality improvements. Right after I joined the headquarters staff in my first USAF unit, I was ordered to attend an all-day ‘strategic planning’ meeting with the senior commanders and staff officers. I went expecting the Big Brass to focus on operational and logistics planning for the coming year. Instead, the conclave wasted an entire morning arguing over minor phrasing changes to the unit’s ‘vision statement.’
In the particular flavour of TQM that our branch had implemented, every element and sub-element was required to publish a ‘mission statement’ and a ‘vision statement.’ The mission statement was supposed to be a paragraph-long explanation summarizing what the organisation was all about, who it served, and how it went about its business. The vision statement was much more … squiffy. It was meant to be an aspirational statement of what the world would look like if the organisation somehow successfully implemented its mission statement. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this concept … if the statements were coherent, clear, and actionable. Most … weren’t.
The submission I remember was an amalgamation of different aspirational phrases that combined to create a staggeringly cumbersome and wholly-incoherent mess. As I recall, it went something like this: ‘Our organisation will provide world-class service, across a broad range of competencies, while maintaining a diverse and valued population of high-performing team members, who are committed to personal and professional excellence in the service of our partners, customers, and suppliers in an accepting, non-judgmental environment, for the benefit of our higher headquarters, leaders, and partners, at all times and under all conditions, such that … blah, blah, blah.’ 
Every major stakeholder wanted to cram in their own additional clause to justify their programme’s continuance. The resulting Franken-paragraph turned into unfathomable gibbering. Making things worse, each sub-organization was supposed to create a supporting vision statement that would take everything that its next-higher echelon had said and add additional comments about how it helped to fulfil the next higher’s vision. The desired end-product was useless for any practical application.
Even a bent nail can be re-purposed as a coat hook.
Compounding the problem, I discovered that some of the sub-organisations deliberately sandbagged the discussions. So long as the parent organisation didn’t have a final, approved, mission and vision statements, secondary processes (like establishing performance targets) couldn’t be implemented. Therefore, the underperforming work centres had a incentive to hold up the bureaucratic statement-writing activities as long as possible so that HQ could never get around to measuring what an awful job their sub-orgs were actually doing. Hence, the hours spent arguing over valueless trivialities.
To me, this was why TQM initiatives tended to suffocate under their own administrative weight: rather than focus on actually fixing quality problems, the initiatives got hopelessly bogged down in bureaucratic meta-functions like a pack mule in a tar pit. Making things worse, the MBA ‘consultants’ who were often hired to facilitate these initiatives encouraged this sandbagging to happen. The shiny-suited parasites had their own vested interest in churning up endless conflict so that they’d never run out of billable hours.
The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with having a ‘vision statement.’ They’re useful tools for communicating management’s desired end-state to the workforce. Even if management’s ultimate goal is stupid, a clear vision statement can at least help everyone pursue it. That clarity of focus is good for production, for morale, and for (*sigh*) quality (in terms of applicable results, at any rate).
useless tool One of the best tools that we had for teaching the value and utility of vision statements was the 1985 romance drama Vision Quest.  That was a coming-of-age drama with a simple plot: a high school wrestler, wants to defeat his state’s wrestling champion. In order to challenge his rival, he has to lose weight. Secondary characters tell the protagonist that his exercise plan is misguided and dangerous, but he won’t be deterred. The hero is so focused on his goal that his love interest leaves him so she won’t distract him from his goal, which he achieves by the end of the film.
The only possible way ‘defeating your high school rival in a wrestling tournament’ could be valuable in later life would be if your ultimate vocational goal was to become a luchador-themed vigilante.
It’s not a good movie and I’m not advocating you see it. Instead, I want you to focus on the clarity of the lead character’s goals: he wants to defeat his rival. To defeat him, he has to fight him. To fight him, he has to lose weight and get super tough. These are clear, logical, achievable goals. Stupid goals, yeah. Pointless, even. That said, anyone could quickly understand his objectives and help him to pursue them. That’s what a decent TQM vision statement is supposed to achieve.
Unfortunately, that’s not what most of them were. Most that I ran across looked like the abovementioned monstrosity: nonsense statements strung together well beyond any semblance of usefulness. That’s a darned shame … Management’s essential function is to set objectives, communicate them to the line, and then help everyone pursue them. To be useful, managers must be clear, concise, and consistent in all their communications. Clarity and brevity aren’t just functionally necessary; eliminating misunderstandings and ambiguity also conveys respect for the people expected to perform the work. Don’t waste your people’s time or labour!
That, at least, is a timeless lesson. I learned it by thrashing hopelessly in the TQM mire an embarrassingly long time ago, but it’s still relevant and valuable today. In fact, it’s just the sort of useful lesson that a new worker ought to be taught early on, especially if you’re grooming him or her for a management role.
Come to think of it, there’s another timeless lesson here worth mentioning: if a management consulting company ever pitches you on the idea of implementing a ‘quality improvement’ programme, run.
 It kept going. I’m happy that I don’t remember the exact phrasing, because I distinctly recall the original slide making me feel violently ill.
 Yeah, it’s ancient now, but it was still relatively fresh back in the nineties.
Title Allusion: Terry Davis (original novelist) and Darryl Ponicsan (screenplay), Vision Quest (1985 film)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.