Managing for Total Quality: Practitioners Must Inspire Employee Involvement

Article excerpt

Companies embracing total quality must view it as an overall process, not just a product inspection. Achieving total quality often requires a major shift in corporate culture. Public relations pros can best contribute to this change when they're involved in quality initiatives from the start.

Four years ago the Chicago public relations firm of Golin/Harris got the word from a major client: get up to speed quickly on "total quality management" (TQM). The client was on the brink of a major quality-improvement effort and in need of help with communications. Top executives asked several firms they'd worked with in the past to learn all they could about TQM as quickly as possible and be ready to pitch in.

Golin/Harris hit the ground running. Its people devoured all the information they could get their hands on, jetted off to seminars and, ultimately, set up their own quality department. "We won the assignment," said Golin/Harris Vice President Charlene Barnard, who now bears the title director of quality. Soon other companies were beating a path to the firms door, seeking help with their own quality initiatives.

These companies wanted Golin to do more than simply take management's latest theme and find ways to promote it. "More often than not we work with directors of quality and a steering team from top management," Barnard said. "We're in on the ground level of helping these companies develop a change in their cultures."

Over the past decade, the total quality movement has fundamentally changed American business. More and more companies have dedicated themselves to complete customer satisfaction, vowing continual improvement of their products, processes and productivity. In many cases, the transformation has required changing the way employees think about their jobs. Public relations professionals, whether working inside or outside the company, would do well to understand the principles of TQM. And rather than merely promoting the new standards, they need to be able to help the company meet them.

While many American companies claim that commitment to quality has been one of their hallmarks from the start, observers date the start of the total quality movement as June 24, 1980. That's when NBC aired the documentary, "If Japan Can, Why Can't We?" The program featured Dr. W. Edwards Deming, an American who pioneered the principles of productivity that thrust Japan into economic primacy. Executives at Ford Motor Company then asked Deming for help. He taught them statistical methods of quality management that underlie Ford's now-famous theme, "Quality is Job One."

During the 80s, hundreds of companies jumped on the quality bandwagon. In 1979, only one Fortune 500 company (Westinghouse Electric Corp.) had a vice president for quality; today, more than 300 do. In 1991, more than 210,000 companies requested application guidelines for the coveted, three-year-old Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. As a result, dozens of quality consulting firms have sprung up.

Build quality into process

What are all these people talking about? A lot more than catching flaws before a product leaves the factory. "Quality control is only one small part of |total quality,'" said Kelly Weidman, public relations account executive with Saphar & Associates in Rochester, NY. A lot of people still think of quality in terms of product, but it needs to apply to everything," she said. That includes the cycle time between product conception and delivery, the way employees organize their work space and the number of rings it takes the receptionist to answer the phone. The idea is to build quality into the entire work process rather than just inspecting the product when all is said and done.

Although TQM takes many forms, with each company following the quality guru of its choice, adherents generally embrace a cluster of principles. These include an emphasis on customer satisfaction, a goal of continual improvement, involvement of employees in decision making, conscious team building, continuous training and measuring progress through diligent recordkeeping. …