When and Why Does Total Quality Management Work, and Why Isn’t It Still Prevalent?

Total Quality Management, or TQM, was prevalent in business thinking in the 1980s, and improved the work lives and productivity of many people as well as the fortunes of some major corporations in that era.  I won’t try to describe how to implement Total Quality Management here, as there are a great many publications on the topic. I will instead describe the most important and fundamental elements I believe an organization needs to achieve the full benefits of TQM, and discuss why I think it fell into disuse.

TQM is much more than just a tool set, which is an important part of why it works. TQM isn’t just a set of statistical tools and practices, though it includes them. It works best when its philosophical base is understood and supported, and when that understanding and support come from the top of the organization. The philosophical platform on which TQM is built and which produces the best results includes a general attitude of optimism and trust in people, a sense of respect for people, and a good perspective on human nature. Unfortunately, these qualities aren’t shared by many people, at least in American business culture, and bureaucracies naturally tend to work against such understanding, to the point where many people have never experienced a positive work environment or a respectful and collaborative management style.

Understanding human nature is fundamental to lasting business success. The basic fact is that everyone (who isn’t mentally ill) wants to make a positive difference in their job, as it is a part of creating and maintaining a positive self image. Unfortunately a variety of factors can subvert or block behavior based on this fundamental fact and make us lose sight of it. Many of those factors are endemic to bureaucracies, which naturally arise as organizations grow, but especially if top management is not savvy enough to understand and manage the process.

Positive opinions about human nature can be conditioned or “beaten” out of people. Unfortunately, bureaucracies naturally tend to create conditions which discourage people, making productive work needlessly difficult. Unless it is implemented with a fundamental understanding of human nature and the positive side of a healthy human’s psyche, and a justified expectation that people will do the right thing when given a choice, TQM becomes little more than a set of tools, and results are likely to be only modest.

W. Edwards Deming was perhaps the most prominent guru of TQM. One of the greatest proponents of TQM was W. Edwards Deming. His work led him from statistics to fundamental truths about both business and human nature over a period of decades. He taught us that “Quality is what satisfies the customer”, and “Quality can be no better than the intent at the top.” among many other things. His definition of quality became increasingly holistic, and included not only product durability and reliability, but the concept that a product or service should satisfy the needs, wants, and expectations of the customer as well as be profitable for the provider. This greatly expanded the thinking of many about what their business actually was, and those companies (and entire business cultures, such as the post-WWII Japanese) that internalized TQM tended to become leaders in their industries. Deming’s recognition that a company that involves the employees in making their jobs and products better will succeed far more readily than one in which employees are directed as to what to do, and where their input is not solicited or ignored, was striking and fundamental, and created big improvements in those firms who took it to heart.

Most organizations in the U.S. didn’t understand or implement TQM very well. The United States business community was already successful in the decades after World War II, and many saw no need to listen to experts like Deming. As a result the U.S. lagged in adopting the concepts of TQM, and did not accept them across the culture, but rather only in certain industries and firms. A general understanding of the sources of success in those industries and firms never developed in the culture, either. The long-extant focus on short term financial performance and the failure of most business schools to either accept or effectively teach TQM added up to a poor implementation in American business culture. With natural management turnover and continued pressure towards short term performance rather than lasting success, TQM was forgotten in many industries by the 1990’s. Some of the tools and techniques of TQM were retained and periodically revived in systems such as “Six Sigma”, from which certain authors and academics profited significantly, but, as Professor Deming, Stephen Covey, and others had taught us, techniques are not enough, and only an understanding and internalization of the fundamentals can lead to true success.

The fundamental principles of TQM still hold. I hope that the fundamental knowledge of TQM will be revived and further developed to produce a more positive and successful business culture in the future, but I understand that there are many forces that will impede such a change. Resistance to change and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” thinking are natural human factors. Huge and entrenched bureaucracies are almost impossible to change in any fundamental sense, which explains why smaller, more aggressive firms frequently arise to join (or depose) the giants. The opportunity to implement TQM is still there, however, and I have hopes that the successful, fundamental philosophy and practices of TQM will return to prominence and bring a new era of high quality products and services, and leading edge companies and industries, to the American and world business cultures.

As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim


5 Responses to When and Why Does Total Quality Management Work, and Why Isn’t It Still Prevalent?

  1. total war says:

    Thats some useful information there, very informative thanks.

  2. Hi Tim,
    I really liked your article and had some little concerns as I have the impresion not to be fully understood if yes or no the TQM is still relevant nowadays as field of specialisation.
    If still relevant, can you please indicate how this is presented in actual world?

    Patrick Kabissel

  3. Please read “Not to have fully understood” and Not “to be fully”.
    Patrick Kabissel

  4. timprosser says:

    Hi Patrick, and thanks for the question. TQM is a framework of concepts and tools for improving procedures and reducing waste in an organization, and other frameworks followed on its heels that generally included the same concepts with enhancements. Followers include ISO9001, Six Sigma, and most recently CMMI (Capability Maturity Model Integration). If you understand any one of them you can probably get good use from any of them. So the short answer is “Yes – TQM is still relevant though the name keeps changing.” In the United States the government prefers defense contractors to be audited at CMMI capability level 3 of 5, so many companies need employees knowledgeable in CMMI to qualify for the business, and hire with this in mind. Please let me know if you have further questions, and thanks again for asking. — Tim

    • Patrick Kabissel says:

      HI Tim,
      Thanks a lot for your reply. I have been looking for this post sometimes ago; I just lost track. I fully agree with you. I spent some months reading on the topic and I can’t imagine I’ve asked this question …:). All in all, with quality management frameworks I understand why there is difference between two companies. The one aware of best practices, quality management techniques and who apply them has some significant advance and very high level of control on the environment. I love this field and I believe, everyone should be taught for at least one day about quality management…Thanks Tim.

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