Thinking Managers

Robert Heller of bemoans the fact that the lessons of Total Quality Management seem to have been forgotten now that TQM has fallen out of fashion.

TQM Lessons to be learnt

Appearances should match reality where business is concerned, as every manager should surely know. And every manager should strive to discover what users of their products and services think about them and obtain feedback regarding their experiences. Then these facts should be compared and contrasted with the organisation’s own beliefs about where it stands.

There is often found to be a significant and potentially malignant gap between beliefs inside and outside an organisation. This came to mind recently when looking at coverage and chaos of the disastrous opening of Heathrow’s brand new, £4billion ‘T5’ fifth terminal.
One must assume that the sole user, British Airways, and the provider, British Airports Authority, had employed the quite powerful modern methods of project management. But that being the case, how on earth could the project have gone awry and at the most sensitive moment, i.e. the first day of service?

The lessons of Total Quality Management could have been learnt from the engineering arm of BA, which adopted TQM after experiencing its worst ever period. A long walk-out had been the culmination of serious unrest among the staff. However, the company stood its ground and the workers eventually went back.
Although the strike had been ‘won’, the management’s real victory was represented by their vow never to allow such a calamity as the strike to ever happen again. As a result, Total Quality Management was adopted, and it was deemed an outstanding operational and financial success.

With 4,000 employees, Aircraft Maintenance represented the largest sector of BA Engineering. The manager John Perkins was not an adherent of the popular ‘culture first’ approach to corporate improvement. AM was experiencing many technical problems, and Perkins put these first. He had been inspired by a chance meeting at Harvard Business School, and henceforth enlisted the services of Kepner-Tregoe, which adopted a formal approach to problem-solving. Forming the basis of the consultants’ analysis were five questions:
     1. Are there any quality issues?
     2. If so, how are they picked up and transferred?
     3. In what way are they dealt with if they are picked up and transferred?
     4. What working mechanism is employed if they are dealt with?
     5. Is the environment supportive of change and the new behaviours required?

You can apply these five questions to all organisations and every single part of them, and they are as ‘hard’ as you can get. However, a ‘soft’ or cultural element of considerable power and importance is embodied in the process. Organisational improvement and development are by no means subtle – deeply established behaviour principles form their basis.

You might think it perfectly logical that the concepts of Total Quality Management which made such a difference at BA Engineering would be transferred to the other divisions of the BA organisation. But it seems the reform went as far as the forming of a committee to effect the transfer – and no further.

Maybe that error of judgement planted the seeds for the T5 catastrophe. Because while Total Quality Management has since dwindled in popularity, the positive lessons that it has left behind should be heeded.

You do not need genius to achieve performance that matches reality to achievement. But true self-knowledge must be developed, and that knowledge must be applied.

About the author
Robert Heller is one of the world’s best selling authors on business management.