Aligning TQM and Organizational Learning

Article excerpt

This article addresses Total Quality Management (TQM) in the general frame of organizational learning, including the pitfalls that can hamper TQM's contribution to improving competitive advantage. To establish the issue of TQM more concretely, three topics will be explored: (1) why managers and executives currently find themselves faced with an array of "programs of the week," (2) the fit between one such program, TQM, and organizational learning, and (3) potential misuses inherent in TQM.

Many management guidelines of the past decade devote attention to the constancy of change: changes in communication, global competition, transportation, information, and the work force itself Indeed, the past decade has been remarkable, not only in the constancy of change, but the speed of change. To meet the challenges of this rapid pace, managers and executives are searching for solutions, approaches, and answers. Typical of the alphabet soup of programs available are: Cost of Quality, High Involvement Initiatives, Standards and Issues Management, Quality Circles, Quality of Work Life, and Total Quality Management--in all its varied forms. None of these programs are bad. None of them are perfect. And none will work as a shortcut to a deep understanding of the organization. A sad observation of the last decade is that many employees and managers, confronted by the implementation of such programs, view them as add-ons, overlays, or "programs of the month." In the worst cases, these pessimists are right.

By contrast, the good news relevant to these programs is that it is exciting to work in an organization that continuously learns and practices any or all of these programs as processes to enhance learning and organizational self-awareness. TQM is a tool that can facilitate such learning.

The ordinary examples of the costs of organizations that do not learn fill the newspapers daily as businesses fail, employees lose their jobs, and products are discontinued. More dramatic examples capture international attention as they become full-scale crises. In the worst cases, such crises escape organizational boundaries, affecting the public and the natural environment. The space shuttle Challenger exemplified the dangers of short-term time pressures and the need to be right. The Exxon Valdez incident set new limits on the costs of not listening and not learning, as layers of communication links blocked critical information. Dow Corning's breast implant crisis resulted because the company did not learn to view potential product liability through the eyes of the customer. The decline and demise of the bulk of Sears' automotive repair services was the result of an inability to learn that placing the value of sales quotas above all else may result in just that outcome.

All of these examples were preceded by warning signals that the organization was not prepared to hear or see or learn from. All of these examples involved a lack of integration of thinking and acting among levels of the organization. All of these examples lacked learning at the organizational level.

Applied properly, TQM is not simply a means of quantifying quality; it is a means of expanding organizational thinking and learning capabilities. In the past, the essence of "quality" was to make products (or deliver services) according to fixed organizational standards. As this level of performance was attained, the goal shifted to producing goods (or services) that reliably matched customer needs (which might exceed or be different from previously accepted organizational standards). Top firm s are now trying to understand and achieve what Peter Senge calls the "latent needs" of the customer, that is, the features or products that the customer may truly value, but may have never requested. Common examples might include facsimile machines or second-day express mail service. Achieving such innovations requires organizational flexibility and adaptability; that is, the ability to learn. …