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Q&A: Researcher Discusses Shortcomings of 'Total Quality Movement'

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Many of the management practices being pursued as part of the "total quality movement'' may be hurting rather than helping companies, according to a study released this month. The $2 million study by Ernst & Young, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, and the American Quality Foundation, a New York-based think tank, cautions against adopting a generic model for making quality improvements.

Based on a survey of 584 companies in the United States, Canada, Germany, and Japan, the study represents one of the most comprehensive efforts to date to understand why quality efforts falter.

Joshua Hammond, the president of the A.Q.F., discussed its implications for schools with Senior Editor Lynn Olson.

Q. Educators are very interested in dispersing decisionmaking power to teachers and other front-line workers. Your study suggests that broadly based employee-empowerment programs may not be effective for all firms. Why not?

A. One strategy says empower everybody, empower all employees. Well, if you are a lower-performing company, to empower employees is essentially to create a sense of anarchy, where everyone--not knowing what their job is and not being properly trained--is out making helter-skelter decisions. Obviously, that empowerment strategy is counterproductive. ... At a higher-performing level, empowerment is a very effective strategy.

Q. Educators are also being encouraged to benchmark their practices against world-class standards. Why might this approach backfire?

A. Benchmarking is commonly understood to be ... imitating the best. Who does the best function, whatever that function is? Let's go find out what they're doing.

The analogy that I use here is, "It's O.K. to go to the Olympics and watch the platform diver do an inward-tucked three-and-a-half somersault with a degree of difficulty of 2.8. But you're a one-meter spring-board diver. When you go back home, you've got to do the forward one-and-a-half.''

We need to be seeing how people within our reach, within our class, within our range of competency are doing things the best, rather than going out and imitating the best in the world. ...

Don't find out which are the 10 best school districts and go and observe them. But, rather, look again at what you want to achieve internally. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. And see how you can incrementally address those.

Q. You found that, for lower-performing companies, a strong focus on the customer was key. How does that apply to schools?

A. One very interesting thing we discovered is that lower-performing companies should be obsessed with face-to-face meetings with the customer--not surveys, not market research, not some of the other sophisticated ways of listening to the customer.

I think for schools, it says, "Identify who your customers are and have face-to-face meetings with them about what their needs are.'' Don't send out a survey team. Don't hire a consulting firm. Don't do written surveys. Do it face-to-face, because then there's a clarity of understanding.

Q. Are there some management practices that are universally beneficial?

A. Very, very few. One is communication of the strategic plan. And this was startling. What this simply means is, "Does everyone know what business you're in and where you're headed?'' In the United States the answer is no. Our survey found that 15 percent of senior management doesn't know, that about 50 percent of middle management doesn't know, and about 90 percent of front-line management doesn't know. Only about 23 percent of boards of directors know.

This is another instruction to boards: Don't go off and sequester yourself at a nice hotel ... and develop a strategic plan and then not come back and tell anybody.

Q. Based on your study, what words of caution would you have for school districts interested in pursuing "total quality'' management?

A. I think a couple of cautions. If they're going to hire an external consulting company, they should query the firm on results. "As a result of doing this, what kinds of results are your clients getting?'' Secondly, I would query them, "Do you practice what you preach?'' It's a lot easier to talk about this stuff than to do it. And the third, for schools, is to focus on a couple of key objectives and to be clear about the outcome of the activity. ... The question is, "What two things do we want to achieve, and how will we know we've achieved them? And what process do we want to put in place in order to do that? And does everybody understand that?''

What we're saying is: Stick to the basics. Keep it simple. Don't get fancy. And be focused. That, I think, is good advice for every school system, because if you've mastered those basics, you can then expand on them.

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