The lessons of total quality management

May 08 2008 by Robert Heller Print This Article

Appearances should match the true reality of the organisation, as every manager must surely know. You must endeavour to find out what users of your products and services think about them and get feedback on their experience of using them. Then you must compare how these real facts measure up with your own beliefs about where your organisation stands.

I have often found there to be a meaningful and potentially malignant gap between the views inside and outside an organisation. I was reminded of this immediately when looking at coverage of the disastrous opening of Heathrow's brand new, £4billion 'T5' fifth terminal and the ensuing chaos.

One assumes that the sole user, British Airways, and the provider, the British Airports Authority would have used modern methods of project management, which are quite powerful.

If that is the case, however, then how could the project have gone awry to such an extent and at such a sensitive moment, i.e. the first day of actual service?

The lessons of Total Quality Management were there to be learnt from BA's engineering business, which introduced TQM following its worst ever period. Serious unrest among the staff had culminated in a long walk-out. The company stood firm, which paid off in the end as the workers went back.

The strike was deemed to have been won but the management's true victory came with the decision to take a vow that such a disaster as the strike would never be allowed to happen again.

That led to the adoption of Total Quality Management. And it proved an outstanding success, in both an operational and financial sense.

Aircraft Maintenance was the largest area at BA Engineering, with 4,000 employees. John Perkins, the boss, was no fan of the popular 'culture first' approach to corporate improvement. There were a host of technical problems at AM, and Perkins put these first.

Having been inspired by a chance meeting at Harvard Business School, he enlisted the services of Kepner-Tregoe, with its formal approach to problem-solving. Five questions formed the basis of the consultants' analysis:

1. Do any quality issues exist?

2. If this is the case, how are they picked up and transferred?

3. How are they dealt with if they are picked up and transferred?

4. What working mechanism is used if they are dealt with?

5. Does the environment support change and the new behaviours required?

The five questions can apply to all organisations and every single part of them, and they are as 'hard' as could be. But a 'soft' or cultural element of great importance and power is embodied in the process.

There is nothing subtle about organisational improvement and development Ė they are based on solid, deeply established behaviour principles.

It might seem perfectly logical that the concepts of Total Quality Management that proved successful of BA Engineering would be transferred to the other divisions of the BA organisation. As is often the case, a committee was formed to effect the transfer but it seems as though that was as far as the reform went.

Perhaps that false step planted the seeds for the T5 catastrophe. Because while management philosophies like Total Quality Management fall out of favour, any positive lessons they leave behind should be heeded.

Genius is not required to achieve performance that matches reality to achievement. However, you must develop true self-knowledge and then apply that vital information.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".