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Davis Balestracci

Quality Insider

Why Did Total Quality Management Fail?

Employees take their cues from management.

Published: Thursday, August 6, 2009 - 04:00

Do top managers still view financial performance as the sole indicator of success, despite mouthing platitudes about dazzled customers and fulfilled employees? Is there a point when reductions are done excessively in the name of squeezing out a few more percentage points of profit, moving companies from their “ideal weight” to a state of near-anorexia?

Shouldn’t success factors include happy customers, more motivated and committed workers, investment in communities, and concern for the environment? Is it possible to create a company whose objectives are worth sacrifice by those who work in it and by the society it serves?

Focusing solely on the numbers must be replaced by a philosophy of focusing on what drives the numbers. Happier customers require happier employees. Has today’s “bigger… better… faster… more… now” society come to the point where it is not only ignoring human needs, but demeaning them?

Work has become increasingly cerebral, and companies can’t treat new employees the way they treated those who worked with a pick and shovel—people won’t let themselves be treated like parts of a machine.

A key challenge in implementing teams, especially self-directed work teams, is eliminating the traditional parent-child management relationship. To be truly empowered, team members should be trained in solving problems, monitoring quality, conducting meetings, and resolving conflict through ongoing developmental sessions, typically one per month. Norms need to be established around the issues of leadership, membership, and processes.

The result of such an environment is to make performance improvement an issue of self-interest rather than management mandate. Otherwise, productivity and quality problems will never be solved. Employee satisfaction is the major factor affecting customer satisfaction. When employees feel valued and find personal satisfaction in their jobs, they will go to extraordinary lengths to exceed customer expectations.

Front-line workers have a message for managers about why quality efforts may not be working quite as well as planned: They feel as if they are languishing in a limbo of unfulfilled promises, inadequate training, and stalled change efforts.

Other front-line observations: Managers speak the language, but don’t behave differently—budgets, schedules, and daily routines never vary. Quality is perceived more as an adjunct program involving more communication than substance. Many mid-level managers perceive it as a lot of quick little fixes that shouldn’t require changing the system. If anything, quality objectives tend to get in the way of performance!

“Our VP is the world’s greatest cheerleader,” said one employee. “He’s out there shouting, ‘Go, Team!’ everyday. Someday I’m going to ask him: ‘What makes you think we’ve got teams here?’” The front-line employees need specific job training that helps them make real changes to their jobs—not more talk and theory about quality.

Where did executive and middle management fail?

Management skills need to change to require more coaching than bossing. There can be the perception that workloads will increase because helping people develop new skills and expertise takes time away from the “real” work (at least, that’s the excuse). Hoping that “this too shall pass,” some will even silently resist by avoiding working with teams entirely.

A deeper, more real reason may be hidden in psychology: “What does this do for me and my job in the future? What’s going to be left here for me?” This managerial resistance in turn makes it too easy for employees to use “managerial inaction” as an excuse for resisting changes themselves. Training in quality skills must be supplemented with support and processes that address fear and resistance and help managers through this awkward, but inevitable, transition.

Managers can no longer view new quality responsibilities—coaching, managing by walking around, developing self-directed work teams, teaching empowerment—as extra duties. How can top leaders help?

• Make quality a main agenda item at staff meetings, holding briefings on quality progress, and publicly recognizing successful quality efforts.
• Make mangers the quality trainers, which creates ownership and a critical mass of champions who in turn exert a powerful influence on other initially reluctant managers.
• Bring employees from all levels together to form quality councils and teams.
• Include principles of quality management in managers’ performance criteria: Implementing quality management, directing efforts toward self-empowered work teams, and creating open communication processes developing capacities of staff.


In my notes I have this great quote from an editorial: “Why does TQM fail? Maybe because we’ve locked the lid on the pressure cooker, turned up the heat, and kept one hand clamped over the release valve. We need to make time for change, stop asking for it, or get ready to clean the kitchen when the lid blows.”

Pressures of the moment are destructive to a learning environment. There must be time for reflection and analysis, to think about strategic plans, dissect customer needs, assess current work systems, and invent new products and services. Employees must be given the skills to use this time wisely.

It involves more than simply looking at obviously dysfunctional processes and attitudes: It involves admitting that the attitudes and behaviors that have gotten some companies to their current level of success will no longer work in the next 10 years. There is no choice but to change. Top leaders must create for the management, and management must in turn create for the front-line, a safe environment where people are willing to take risks and be held accountable for their actions. The true challenge lies in finding out how uncomfortable people can be during change and still feel safe. There is more of a tendency for people to complain and deny the change than it is for them to find safety levels that create action. It’s important to allow for some grieving in a change process, but getting too comfortable in sorrow inhibits needed action.

Failure to integrate quality into organizational structure

There’s little question that mainstreaming quality—working it into strategic organization operations—is the best way to make it pay off. Typically, the “boutique” approach, setting up a “quality department” to create small scale successes that become the groundwork for somehow influencing the planning processes and operations of the organization, is what is used. Tom Peters says that this approach virtually guarantees that quality will get stalled as “internal programs run by technocrats.” It must become “the religion, organizing logic, and culture of the firm.”

Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School states: "When TQM efforts fail, it is because they are mounted as programs, unconnected to business strategy, rigidly and narrowly applied, and expected to bring about miraculous transformations in the short term without management lifting as much as a finger."

The key to merging quality planning with operational and strategic planning is better information—about customers and about the rest of its industry. Quality has been made a peripheral issue for too long. There is no longer the luxury of spending years on a quality learning curve. The transition must be brought down from several years to between now and the next planning cycle. There is no choice but to actually be talking in quality terms and emphasizing the customer as plans are developed.

How to tie quality programs into strategic planning:
• Don’t get bogged down on internally focused training or consciousness raising. Focus on leadership. Some knowledge gaps will have to be filled in, but a good CEO can do an 80 percent job of filling that gap in an afternoon.
• What are your present quality efforts costing you? Include warranties, repairs, problem solving, prevention, measurement, and monitoring. What is your current return on this investment?
• What gets customers? What keeps them? What makes them go away?
• Customer data must be collected and used as part of planning. It goes far beyond the ubiquitous “customer surveys,” which typically lack the focus and precision needed to determine what the data actually means.
• Get actionable information that lets you predict what customers will do if you make some kind of change—not how happy they are on a “1 to 5 scale” with generic customer service attributes.
• Feed data back on two or three significant factors such as shorter cycle times, lower costs, customer retention, as well as on internal measurements, such as error rates or rework reduction (improvements of 50 percent or higher are not unusual).
• Abandon programs that don’t have much effect and watch your competition closely.


Current management practices still cling onto their paradigms and try to adapt the latest philosophy to existing archaic frameworks in the manner of “the tail wagging the dog.” Quality zealots do not help by their well-meaning but misguided and expensive training programs with assurances to management, “But it will take time! You must be patient!” If anything, the pendulum may have even swung too far in the opposite direction with the “immediate results” philosophy espoused by Six Sigma. The accelerated need for change and more sophisticated customers are going to force organizations to face, finally, the human behavioral issues that even the best training on “processes, tools, and good information” still blindly ignore.


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.


Bob Todd


Truly great observations. My only response to your inquiry: "Why is this so hard to understand?" I can only reply that there is a strong tendency toward lag indicators in almost all aspects of our lives, and EFFECTS fall firmly into that. When most companies create KPIs and metrics, they are almost entirely rear-view perspectives; perhaps this is because we are far more confident when we espouse on what has happened compared with what will happen.

"Be the change you want to see in this world."

Why TQM fails...

These are all salient points. Having served as a Director of TQM for a major healthcare organization, and having been previously part of a very successful TQM effort in manufacturing (the healthcare effort was successful also), I can affirm that the critical factors in all successful implementations was that Senior Management...
- 'got it',
- lived it,
- invested heavily in promoting it,
- took part in the training,
- pushed decision making down the hierarchy,
- were relentless in their pursuit of understanding their organization as a system (a la Peter Senge and others),
- admitted that they did not have all the answers,
- lead by example (even when they failed at something),
- went on a journey of self-transformation (and made their efforts public),
- and above all, drove fear out of the workplace

'Get It' OR 'Get Out'...
My one piece of advice to all Quality professionals is that if your Senior Leaders, after much exposure to the principles of TQM, still refuse to 'get it', then you need to 'get out' and join another company (a competitor?), that lives these principles. Heck even start your own company! Life is too short and too precious to surrender it to others who are only interested in seeking glory and reward in short term results, at the expense of longer term success..

Thank you Davis for such an informative article.

Brian Ward
Principal, Affinity Consulting

Why did TQM fail?

TQM wasn't the first initiative to fail and it won't be the last. Deming saw SPC wither after WW II. My observation is that TQM did not die so much as it moved underground. Many Quality professionals snicker at Six Sigma with its 1.5 Sigma Shift, etc.
I was involved in establishing TQM and metrics programs, in the 1980s and 90s, at several corporations. Some succeeded and some failed. In hindsight, Deming had it right. The problem was management. All the pieces for success were there: Need – dire need; metrics plan; documentation; pilot program success results; training; programmer buy-in. The missing piece in those programs that failed was project management, and/or higher, buy-in.
Pointing fingers is useless. FMEA and root cause analysis would work to discover "why" but if management does not want to hear the answer (they already know) then leave it. At one company in north Florida in the 90s, I was asked to come up with more accurate estimating methods. I looked at past projects data and did the usual statistics and modeling. I discovered that all the projects that John managed were severely under-estimated. I told him the findings and before I could offer a fix, I was “fixed”.
Lawyers have a saying about trials, “Never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to.” The same common sense applies to metrics or TQM or whatever Flavor-of-the-Month program is reported. Managers already know. If you want TQM to succeed then you have but one course of action. Find out who is the "resister" and either win them over to your side, or neutralize their criticism, or find a way around the obstacle, or set things up to comprise their demise, or walk away. There is seldom any other way.
TQM failed not because the theory or math was bad…it failed because of the reasons spoken by Dr. Kanter and quoted by Davis. TQM, as it was originally conceived by the Navy or Armand, was a systemic method…a disease cure. TQM as it was practiced by quacks and hacks was symptomatic. Fixing symptoms is necessary but not sufficient to cure the disease. Unlike most human diseases, corporate diseases usually kill the host – GM or Chrysler anyone? To carry the medical metaphor one step further, effective doctors take a good, comprehensive history; "...a medical history is 90% of the diagnosis." When we undertake a TQM program, or metrics project, or Six Sigma project, or LEAN initiative we need to take a good, thorough, comprehensive patient history. That will diagnose the corporate disease...okay, throw in a couple of statistics tests. Undertaking the cure -- appropriate choice of words -- is another matter. Is there a doctor in the House?
Thank you, Davis, for an entertaining and informative article.

Good points all

I got out of the quality business after tiring of busting boundaries and making improvements for bosses who neither understood nor cared what I was doing. The good part was that people almost always responded cheerfully, sometimes hungrily, to constructive change, although in one company almost all of the people violently resisted change.

Why did TQM fail?

Bob Todd
Bridgeport, CT

Hooray, Mr. Balestracci, for again pointing out that simply paying lip service to quality has not worked, and won't work, no matter how loudly the cheerleaders cheer.

There are two "Fundamental Axioms" of business, each with an obvious corollary, that are apparently still unknown despite 20 years of teaching. They are:

A1: Quality (of product, service, employees, management, processes) is a CAUSE of success in business. Quantity (of revenue, sales, market share, stock price) is an EFFECT of success in business.
C1: Management attention should be directed more to causes than effects.

A2: People pay professional attention to what is measured and rewarded.
C2: If you want your people to pay attention to important things, you must measure and reward important things.

Why do you suppose this is so hard to understand?