TQM— a Fad?
TQM (Total Quality Management) for A/E/P firms is nothing more than a fad. I’d be willing to bet right here and now that in two or three years, you won’t hear anything about it. TQM will go the same way that other management fads like MBO (Management by Objectives) went. It will fade into the deep dark recesses of the management history sections of college textbooks.
What’s wrong with TQM? Nothing, really. Who could say there’s anything wrong with a desire to improve quality? Improving quality ranks right up there with motherhood and apple pie. And TQM is based on sound concepts, like doing the job right the first time, better staff training, and constantly looking for ways to improve quality. The problem is that these things can not be reduced to process. No TQM Manager, Quality Committee, quality improvement seminar, or 600-page handbook will be able to do (or undo) the effects of the firm’s culture on producing quality work. It’s that simple.
It’s been said before that one CEO who cares about quality is worth more than all of the quality improvement programs put together. The culture of the firm is established by the person at the top. If he or she cares about quality, and demonstrates that concern daily in every single action, the firm will put out good quality work. If, on the other hand, the CEO only cares about maximizing short-term staff utilization rates, or selling work to new clients, or how he or she can get the most money out of their company stock at retirement time, quality will not be a high priority and it will slip.
You don’t need to be a prophet to see the writing on the wall that the TQM fad is already passing. There is already less junk mail coming from the self-proclaimed quality experts promoting cure-all TQM programs. Their claims of higher profitability (after the implementation of some very costly programs) have still not been proved in the A/E/P and environmental consulting fields— at least to me. And, there’s very little mention of TQM these days in the business press. They are already into new concepts like “corporate reengineering,” the “learning organization” and “time based competition.”
Besides, any observer of management in the professional service industries knows that we are always the last to jump on any bandwagon. By the time we hear about a new development in management thinking, it’s got to be past its prime. As an industry, we’ve just started to widely embrace the concept of strategic business planning, something that the rest of American industry discovered in the 60s and 70s. And we didn’t discover the benefits of marketing until the 70s, when the rest of the business world figured that out in the 50s.
I’m all for improving quality. But I’m a pragmatist. In order for improvements in quality to come about, there has to be dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. That dissatisfaction usually comes about after a costly lawsuit, a big money-losing project, or an embarrassing incident with a client. When the dissatisfaction of those who own and or manage the firm is great enough, quality gets better. Maybe we should coin a new management term: TDM, or “Totally Dissatisfied Management!”
Originally published 9/15/1992