Total quality -- the involvement of all employees in continuous improvement of an organization's products and services to customers -- has been called a thought revolution in management.
If that's true, and I'm convinced it is, then total quality also must be a thought revolution in communication, since communication is one of the essential tools managers use to achieve their purpose.
If that's also true, and I'm equally convinced that it is, what can communicators do to meet the new organizational challenges of these revolutionary times?
The long answer is that communicators, like managers, must struggle with the never-ending need to watch, listen, read, reflect, try, fail, learn, relearn and so on.
The short answer is: Rethink media and help management.
Let's stick to the short answer.
Quality guru W. Edwards Deming has railed against the media route to quality since at least the early 1950s, even making this concern one of his legendary 14 points of quality improvement. He writes in point 10:
"Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force."
In other words, quality and customer satisfaction problems reside, ultimately, in the way work is done, not in the way management exhortations on banners and bulletin boards would have it appear to be done.
Exhorting employees to do better while denying them the tools and power to improve their work processes is a ticket to frustration, one Deming has spent much of his long career advising managers not to buy.
His warnings too often vanish in the rush to hang those quality banners.
The quality movement bears some of the blame, spawning as it has a minor growth industry for pens, note pads, brochures, neckties and other quality-improvement memorabilia.
The reality remains, though, that the best of traditional organizational media, and this includes management speeches and pep talks, can do little more than reinforce existing worker attitudes.
These attitudes, in turn, are based on such work-place realities as empowerment, management role modeling and clearly rewarded opportunities for continuous improvement of work processes.
When employees don't trust managers to behave in keeping with their public messages, the best media campaign for quality is doomed to disappointment if not outright failure.
A rule I use is: "The stronger the media blitz for quality, the greater the risk of audience rejection if management behavior doesn't reinforce the message."
Communication expert Roger D'Aprix, ABC, says it another way: "The boss makes the weather."
D'Aprix's point is obvious. All the feel-good efforts in the world won't warm the company climate if management, especially senior management, doesn't visibly support the quality effort with appropriate new ways of running the organization.
Does this mean traditional media should never be used to communicate quality?
Of course not. They're too valuable.
But in a total-quality environment, the true value of traditional communication media -- videos, newsletters and such -- comes primarily when they are used as part of a carefully planned and coordinated communication strategy to support an equally well-crafted total-quality strategy.
Only management can build the quality strategy.
That's where the second entry on my short list comes in.
This may seem obvious. If communicators weren't helping management they would soon be out of work.
But in communicating total quality, far more is needed than traditional media skills, valuable as these may be.
Influencing employee attitudes is one of the primary objectives of organizational communication. …