Failure to Thrive: A TQM Story

Davis Ballistracchi recently penned an insightful piece for Quality Digest, Why Did Total Quality Management Fail? One of the key reasons is management. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. They sit on the sidelines, cheering employees on, but nothing changes because management doesn’t change. Management blocks the change rather than enabling it.

This piece took me back to my days as the Director of TQM for an office products distributor that was acquired by Staples. The president and owner of the company had read a lot about TQM and decided that TQM was going to be the path to delighting customers and making more money. I was hired to make the transformation. My first challenge was that very few of the employees had ever worked on a team before and had no team skills or meeting skills. So we had to start at square one in teaching basic skills before we could ever get to problem solving and continuous improvement. Employees became energized and the company was buzzing with excitement as employee-initiated change began to occur. We accomplished many good, even innovative things.

However, we hit the wall. Why? Because the president would not change his behavior. He would put on his green cardigan sweater (always a sign of trouble) and head out to the warehouse with a clipboard. There he would find problems, take notes, and order the associates around like small children. He would undo the accomplishments of the associates and “critique” them in a belittling way. He called it giving them feedback.

There was an “emperor’s new clothes” mentality at the company in relation to the president. No one dared to be honest with him, as the consequences would be ugly.  The Deming principle, “Drive out fear” was definitely absent, as the atmosphere of fear around the president was palpable.  To the horror of my fellow management team members, I would tell the emperor about the lack of clothing and the about the need for management to model and lead the change.

In all of his readings about TQM success stories, the president never noticed that change meant everyone, including him. And this man did not wish to change.

The end of my tenure at the company came in an interesting, but predictable way. The exasperated president told me that he was upset because I was not doing my job. The problem? I was foisting the responsibility for quality onto all the employees instead of implementing it myself. While he thought he was informing about my dereliction of duty, in fact, he was paying me the highest possible compliment. I had managed to make quality everyone’s, not the quality function’s job. Sadly, everyone’s job but his.

I left the company shortly after that conversation, to, believe it or not, tearful goodbyes from employees. Employees knew that it was the end of empowerment and change. Back to familiar same old, same old command and control management.

I learned several things: the importance of change starting at the top and also the difficulty of bringing about change from within. A leader who gives lip service to change but doesn’t truly embrace change ensures that change does not occur. An internal change agent rapidly loses his or her outsider status. I became an insider and was less able to bring about the change. I had been shoveling sand against the tide and experienced my own “lessons learned”.

Sherry R. Gordon

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