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The Development of Quality Management since the 1980s

© Peter Atkinson
September, 2004

There are fashions in management just as there are in clothing, cars and music. Twenty years ago western companies were disconcerted by the rapid advances made by the Japanese since the end of the Second World War. By 1980 Detroit was close to being put out of business by Japanese auto-makers. And how had the Japanese car, which so recently had been only fit as the butt of jokes, become such a ferocious competitor? The answer was ‘quality’.

For the next fifteen years or so western companies ‘did quality’. A professional manager could not expect to keep his job unless he used the correct terminology: ‘continuous improvement’, ‘value added’, ‘right first time’, ‘lean production’. The Japanese could make more with less people, so the head count was cut. The Japanese captured the market because they made high quality products so Total Quality Management was in vogue. As things improved the new fashion became strategy. Near the beginning of Hamel and Prahalad’s nineties book on strategy “Competing for the Future” the quality fashion is dismissed as “merely catching up to the competition” (1). Then the US economy dipped and both quality and strategy went out of the window and survival became the order of the day.

These business fashions arise from the realities of the business climate at the time. In the seventies and eighties western companies needed to improve quality and the fashionable dogmas did help them to achieve the improvement. In the nineties rapid changes in the business environment largely due to improvements in information technology and communication leading to a greater degree of globalisation made way for the emphasis on strategy. The problem is that these fashions have never gone deep enough. Too often managers speak the vocabulary but do not do enough to transform their businesses: they talk quality but they do not think and feel it. The fact that under the pressure of ebbing markets companies have asked themselves, “Can we afford this quality stuff?” shows the shallowness of their commitment to quality management in the first place (2).

ISO9000 is a standard of quality developed in the 1980s by the European Union. It was very much in vogue in the 1990s because, so the theory went, a B2B customer would know what to expect from a company with ISO9000 accreditation. In many people’s eyes, however, ISO9000 has been discredited because of its inability to deliver actual quality. The standard consists of documentation, procedures, forms and reports that compose the basis of the company’s quality management but there is no attempt to measure the extent to which these actually produce a quality outcome. ISO9000 is, in fact, nothing more than a pious hope. Philip Crosby has likened the ISO9000 documents produced by a company to gain its accreditation to the Gideon Bible that was left in hotel bedrooms in the vain hope that the users of the room would follow its moral precepts (3). Despite its lack of engagement, ISO9000 owes a great deal to Total Quality Management.

Over the last twenty years, the management of quality has been overshadowed by a group of principles generally known as ‘Total Quality Management’ or TQM. These principles were first explored by American management consultants, W Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran who advised Japanese companies shortly after the Second Word War (4). These principles were first popularised by the Japanese companies that used them and then re-imported into the US (5). A huge body of literature and debate has grown up around TQM which has been applied and adapted by many different types of company all over the world and been evident in many manifestations including ‘lean production’ and Motorola’s ‘Six Sigma’. Also many unquestionably useful tools have arisen such as Taguchi’s notion of ‘Robust Quality’ (6) and Hauser’s ‘House of Quality’.

Continuous improvement is one of the cornerstones of TQM. Denning recommended a cyclical process which was later formulated by others as Deming’s wheel. In the Japanese version the term used for this continuous process of improvement is kaizen. This is a process that may be happening while work is being done as usual or regular periods of time may be allotted to it eg. one day every three months. The aim is to constantly root out muda (waste), muri (unevenness) and mura (discrepancy). Kaizen is a gentle process of incremental change but this does not rule out kaikaku which is “the time to tear things apart and recombine them in a totally different way” . In other words a more radical change in order to bring about immediate benefits and this may be appropriate at the beginning of the adoption of a TQM approach, for example, to eliminate “monuments” which consist of some kind of heavy investment in the old batch mode way of doing things, perhaps an expensive piece of machinery. Wherever possible a poka yoke or fool proof method or device should be introduced, for example, different shaped nozzles for petrol and diesel so that the correct fuel can only go into a vehicle’s tank. As technology improves, particularly information technology, there is increasing scope for removing sources of error in this way, for example by using CAD/CAM.

The point of kaizen is not to improve the quality of the product – rigorous inspection could achieve that – but to improve the quality of the production process. As one writer points out “… a high quality process will produce a high quality product at a lower cost simply because there will be fewer delays, less rework, less wasted human effort …” (7) Another formative writer on TQM, Philip Crosby, famously asserted that “quality is free”.

Just-in-time (JIT) techniques have become an important part of TQM. The initial aim of JIT is to reduce the costs of carrying inventory. However, inventory has a tendency to conceal problems with quality. A ‘lean production’ approach where there is no security blanket of inventory shows up quality problems immediately before they become more expensive to remedy.

Among Deming’s fourteen points for implementing quality improvement (8) there are several that mention the importance of recruiting everyone in the workforce to the cause of quality. However, he made no mention of any radical overhaul of the command and control structure nor does this notion appear in early implementations of TQM, for example at Toyota where quality management was very much handed down the chain of command. Also, none of Deming’s fourteen points mentions the customer. As TQM evolved two new emphases appeared: employee empowerment and customer defined quality.

In early implementations of TQM it was legendary that even the humblest of assembly line workers had the power to stop the line if he spotted a problem. The point was that the problem should not be allowed to persist but that it was cheaper to solve it on the spot once and for all. As TQM evolved Quality Circles appeared in Japan in the 1960s and were fashionable in the US in the 1970. Here the idea was for workers to discuss quality issues on a regular basis and formulate the solutions that could either be implemented immediately or passed up the management tree for approval. In time Quality Circles fell out of favour because meetings tended to be held whether there was something to discuss or not and workers often felt that their suggestions were being ignored. However, the notion of the self-regulating team emerged and this has proved more durable since it suits the organisation structure of modern companies that have to have the flexibility for staff to move swiftly from one project to the next.

Deming was a statistician and his ideas are readily applied to engineering contexts. He said that 85% of production problems were to do with the process and only 15% with the workforce. Consequently, quality management aimed to motivate workers to help improve the process rather than anything more fundamental. As TQM came to be applied to a wider variety of contexts, particularly in service industries, the idea of employee empowerment became more significant, for example, the 85/15 rule is meaningless in the context of the hospitality industry. In a context where the people, rather than machines, are the most significant element of the process, self-regulating teams are the best way of embodying the TQM philosophy. However, it is here that TQM meets its most serious and subtle resistance. Rarely are companies able to fundamentally rethink not just their organisation structure but their power structure as well in order for teams to be able to function effectively. Critics of TQM see the use of teams bringing about “ …management by stress … management through blame … and management by compliance” (9). In other words, the team only has the appearance of empowering its individual members to concentrate on the quality issues that they encounter in their work and, in fact, is merely deferential to those who were responsible for initiating the processes that need improvement.

Comparatively late coming to the vocabulary of TQM was the term ‘value-added’ meaning that any proposed action taken by a manager should be subject to three requirements:

  • The customer is willing to pay for this activity?
  • It must be done right the first time
  • The action must somehow change the product or service in some manner

Hauser’s ‘House of Quality’ (10) is a very valuable technique for ensuring that customer perceived quality attributes are used in the design of products and services

The future of quality management will not be a matter of fashion, that phase is past. To survive in a globally competitive market all companies must put into practice the fundamental principles of TQM – whatever manifestation they choose and whatever they choose to call it. Over the past twenty years quality has generally improved despite poorly conceived and half-hearted implementations of TQM because IT has made things easier. It is easier to gather control data, analyse it and disseminate it so that in many ways quality becomes easier by default. For TQM to really work, and deliver competitive advantage, it has to be done whole heartedly and it has to be consistent with the company’s strategy (11).

Too often today the monuments to be disposed of are not expensive batch processing machines but the entrenched presuppositions in the minds of managers. It is futile to pursue quality if your customers perceive quality differently and it is fruitless to have self-regulating teams if those teams are not genuinely empowered. Continuous improvement will always be necessary but in the future we shall discover mudi, muri and mura in new places.


1 Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad (1994), Competing for the Future, p2.

2 For an interesting discussion of how TQM should be approached when the company is faced with loss of business see Daniel Niven (1993), ‘When Times Get Tough, What Happens to TQM?’, Harvard Business Review, May-June 1993.

3 Philip Crosby (1997), Quality Digest, 1997, p24.

4 David A Garvin and Artemis March (1990), ‘A Note on Quality: The Views of Deming, Juran, and Crosby’, The Harvard Business Review, February 1990.

4 Joseph M Duran (1993), ‘Made in USA: A Renaissance in Quality’, Harvard Business Review, July 1993.

5 Genichi Taguchi and Don Clausing (1990), ‘Robust Quality’, Harvard Business Review, January-February 1990.

6 James P Womack and Daniel T Jones, ‘Beyond Toyota: How to Root Out Waste and Pursue Perfection’, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1996.

7 Myron Tribus, ‘Deming’s Redefinition of Management’, http://deming.ces.clemson.edu.

8 Jay Heizer and Gary Render (1997), Principles of Operations Management, Prentice Hall.

9 Sunderland, Garahan and Stewart quoted in Graham Godfrey, Barrie Dale, Mick Marchington and Adrian Wilksinson (1997), ‘Control: a contested concept in TQM research’, International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol17 No6, 1997.

10 John R Hauser and Don Clausing (1988), ‘The House of Quality’, Harvard Business Review, May-June 1988.

11 Wayne J Hunicke, ‘Total Quality: The Three Missing Links”, http://glis.utexas.edu/~rpollock/tqm.html