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by Caroline Buhagiar | 15 Mar. 2017

Once upon a time there was Total Quality Management (TQM) back in the 90’s. Everywhere we went around the world, companies hailed the TQM mindset and the focus on quality and customer satisfaction it brought within organizations. Today this is rarely mentioned during any given meeting. This begs the question...Why?

TQM brought with it five basic principles which are still so relevant today. Why have we gone about reinventing the wheel? All the buzzwords we hear nowadays bring nothing new to the table that TQM has not shown us in the past. The five principles of a TQM mindset are:

  1. Leadership and Management
  2. Employee empowerment
  3. Fact based decision making
  4. Quality Excellence
  5. Customer Focus

So simple and yet so effective in their meaning. The language of TQM spoke to all employees of the organization. All levels of hierarchy could understand their meaning and implement activities related to each of the principles in their day to day. The principles are an overarching framework that puts at the forefront the needs of stakeholders (whether internal or external).

TQM brought a wave of measurement tools with it. Starting from simple process controls to more complex statistical analysis that can be applied to any function of the organization. Today we talk about analytics and big data. The only difference today, when compared to what TQM was already advocating years back, is inundation of data coming from different sources, some of which is not so reliable.

TQM brought customer focus which required rigorous attention to the services or products being offered. Nothing different to all the hype of “customer centricity”. Today many companies declare or aspire to be the most customer centric organization and yet when you mention some of the latter fundamentals, few are those who have read about these basics.

Leadership and employee development was at the heart of the TQM philosophy which advocated to empower, individuals in the organization to drive their development and take charge of their careers. Today we have over engineered our Performance Management process to ensure our employees are agents of change and agile learners. Many organizations invest millions of dollars implementing HRIS systems that can manage the entire cycle of the development of their people, yet many admit that a state of the art system is not sufficient. There needs to be the mindset. This is the reason why TQM was all about creating a mindset for sustainable quality and leadership.

I am all for innovation, creativity and adding new buzzwords to our business dictionaries. However I am also for efficiency and effectiveness; reinventing the wheel should not be on anyone’s agenda.

Where did it all start?

It started back in the 1920s but let us have a look at the 1940’s. After war devastation in Japan, the Japanese caught wind of Total Quality Management. At that time, Japanese products were considered poor quality imitations. Hearing about the success of quality management in the west, Japan employed the assistance of quality management experts like Dr. Deming and Dr. Juran. Little did the Western culture know at that time, Japan would soon push the envelope and set new standards in TQM.

During the first international quality management conference in 1969, Feigenbaum would first use the phrase Total Quality Management. Feigenbaum, however, would not meet the depth of understanding of the term that Japanese attendee and speaker, Ishikawa would. Ishikawa would indicate during the conference that TQM should apply to all employees within the organization – from employees at the lower tiers to head management. Ishikawa was later named after the famous “Ishikawa Diagram” or as it is known in the west, “the fishbone diagram”.

The Western culture would soon catch up, however by the 1980’s, the Western culture would take notice of Japan’s success and start to set and adhere to higher Total Quality Management guidelines. At this time, it was unclear as to what exactly TQM involved.

The U.S. Government would soon be responsible for making those guidelines and standards clear with their development of the Malcolm Baldridge Award. An award that could be won by businesses that exhibited quality management excellence. Other countries, like Europe, would follow in the United States’ footsteps and develop similar awards, such as the European Quality Award (EQA).

The TQM Process involves one of the simplest and most widely used tools for quality improvement - the Walter Shewhart's “Plan-Do-Check-Act” improvement cycle. It is widely known as the PDCA cycle. This is the core process to all activities implanted during the TQM journey. So simple and yet many companies don’t find it as straight forward. It is a continuous cycle that requires rigour and commitment at all levels of the organization.

The purpose of quality management, remains the same as it has been, all throughout history – to ensure that customers receive an excellent service and quality product. One wonders though, how come TQM is rarely mentioned these days. Where has it gone?

Have we replaced it with new buzzwords. Have we created new Quality Awards which profess similar concepts and guidelines? The truth is, many believe that TQM is just as relevant today, as it was back then.

Caroline Buhagiar is an avid and passionate HR professional who has worked in large multinational companies in Europe, US and Asia. She is fluent in manufacturing excellence, business excellence, building HR capability and driving
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