The other day one of my business students asked me, “Whatever happened to Total Quality Management, anyway? I don’t hear much about it anymore.” This question has been asked frequently during the past few years. I would like to share with you the reply I gave my student. In Central Oregon, typical of many other places, TQM isn’t enjoying the “fad” status it did ten years ago. However, you’ll find its principles still intact in many businesses that bought into the program in years past.
Several companies I know of have discarded much of their earlier enthusiasm, but still retain at least two factors: the team emphasis and CPI, or Continuous Process Improvement. It is the latter I want to address here. Perhaps your business has been badly impacted by the recession; maybe the ongoing, never-ending nature of the Quality process has simply started wearing thin. My best advice would be: whatever else you abandon, don’t give up Continuous Process Improvement. In many ways, CPI is the most important element of TQM to retain. As W. Edwards Deming himself put it years ago, “You must improve constantly and forever the system of production and service.”
According to Deming, quality must be built in at the design stage. Once the firm goes beyond that point, change is costly and much more difficult. ” Putting out fires is not improvement,” Deming used to say. “Finding a point out of control, finding the special cause and removing it, is only putting the process back to where it was in the first place. It is not improvement of the process.” This is the illustration Deming often used in his seminars: “You are in a hotel. You hear someone yell ‘fire!’ He runs for the fire extinguisher and pulls the alarm to call the fire department. We all get out. However, extinguishing the fire has not improved the hotel [or its processes.]That is putting out fires.” One local company I have dealings with holds weekly CPI meetings at 6am every Wednesday. Despite the hour, the meetings are well attended and constructive. Each department reports on problems that have come up during the week. Then the entire group offers creative, proactive suggestions for improvements. This isn’t “putting out fires,” because the suggestions that are adopted consistently involve permanent changes in the process, changes that will be worked on and refined further as time goes on.
The meetings are still effective because they produce results that have continued to be extremely useful over a long period of time. Also, the work teams feel a sense of control over the processes and their improvement– a sense of involvement that they honestly don’t want to give up. That’s a great built-in incentive. If you haven’t instituted a CPI program in your business, consider doing so. No business is too big or too small to benefit from the principles. TQM isn’t dead; Continuous Process Improvement still impacts local businesses-and it can do so for yours.
Lowell H. Lamberton is professor of management at Central Oregon Community College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 383-7714.