`TOTAL quality," the management technique that brought so much success to Japanese companies and acquired momentum over the 1980s in American business, is at a new juncture.
The pioneers of the quality revolution are passing the baton to a second wave of United States companies. What's not clear, however, is how broadly the business philosophy will take hold.
Several recent studies have knocked its efficacy as a management tool, suggesting that a third of businesses fail to make it work. But the blame, proponents contend, is due in large part to the quick-fix mentality of managers who ignore the need for major, long-term organizational change.
For the successful pioneers of quality management - an approach that emphasizes teamwork and constant improvement in operations - the results can be dramatic. Xerox, one of its earliest and best practitioners, had a shrinking market share in 1984 - down 35 percent and slipping - when it adopted TQM. It is now the world's leading manufacturer of copiers and even sells to Japan. Motorola has cut $700 million from its manufacturing costs in five years through total quality techniques.
Yusang Chang, a professor at Boston University, sees all players, big and small, being pulled along as some of the best-managed companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Zytec, and Milliken, demand higher quality standards of their suppliers.
"It's like a professional playing with a kid," says Professor Chang. "If the kid doesn't rapidly grow up to become another professional," he will be out of business.
Traditionally, defects were measured as parts per hundred or thousand. Now companies like Motorola are looking at mistakes per billion. To achieve those goals, suppliers have to meet the same standards.
CHANG cites Xerox and Ford, which have cut their number of suppliers by a factor of 10. Those who didn't come up to scratch were dropped, while the remaining suppliers have more business than before.
Some companies are finding TQM a hard nut to crack.
"It not only requires management's commitment but also its patience, and we don't tend to be a patient society," said Jerome Finnigan, an author of "The Race Without a …