The legacy of TQM and lessons for Social Business Design

Anyone remember Total Quality Management (TQM)?

By the early 1990s interest in TQM was beginning to fade. Even it biggest supporters in the US, like Florida Power & Light, eventually “slashed its program because of worker complaints of excessive paperwork”. Other simply felt it failed to live up to expectations for improving business performance or return on investment. Of course, it might also be the simple fact that TQM was harder and needed more time than people expected (or were prepared to give). In fact, Robert E. Cole’s 1998 review of TQM concluded that:

The legacy of the quality movement is more than its detractors allow but less than its zealots proclaimed.

Cole identified a number of organisational learning, leadership and cultural challenges to adopting TQM by American firms that in his opinion affected its immediate impact on business practices, which had serious implications for their compeititve position.

This suddenly sounds very familiar, particularly the discussion about the need for evidence:

Management, of course, demanded hard evidence to support counter-intuitive claims [about the relationship between reduced costs and higher quality]. It is a truism that individuals will infer and take action without evidence when the inferences are consistent with their prior beliefs. When inferences challenge existing beliefs, however, individuals want evidence before taking action. The more problematic the nature of the a claim, the more social actors want standard scientific evidence to support it before they act on it. Face with great uncertainty as to the nature and implementation of the new new quality paradigm, management responded in just this fashion. The evidence, however, was hard to come by. Even when it existed, managers did not know the right questions to ask or where to look for it. Moreover, they often rejected what evidence there was.”

The dangerous outcome was that managers preferred to lean on the practices of companies like themselves who were adopting TQM in ways that fitted existing mental models, rather than learning directly from the source in Japan. Following cultural norms (and I would claim, reductionist thinking practices), they attempted “quality by exhortation” and used one-size fits all check list driven methodologies, such as Crosby.

On reflection many of the tools of TQM are eerily similar to social business design:

nine common TQM practices as cross-functional product design, process management, supplier quality management, customer involvement, information and feedback, committed leadership, strategic planning, cross-functional training, and employee involvement. (from Wikipedia)

But unlike the 1980s, where American work practices were threatened by the Japanese, the challenge today is about traditional organisational models versus those of the Web. As a result there are still very few companies to learn from, but they do exist and are changing industries in their wake.

So will managers again turn to solutions that really don’t change anything or aren’t given time to have real impact? Based on the history of management, this is quite likely. But if we are lucky, just like TQM, the legacy of the social business design movement will be more than its detractors allow but less than its zealots proclaim.