In August 1996, I wrote an editorial for The Quality Magazine, titled ‘Quality Management in Retail’. In the article, I lamented the lack of interest in TQM (Total Quality Management) amongst Australian retailers. Twenty years later, the industry still struggles with sub-optimal results, but I believe that I’ve now discovered one of the reasons why TQM gets the cold shoulder.

During a recent conversation, a colleague pointed out that perhaps people don’t embrace TQM because of its name. This was a BFO moment for me, BFO standing for Blinding Flash of the Obvious. The three words in the TQM abbreviation definitely don’t communicate that the method deals more with quality of management than with the management of quality.

Given that the quality of management in any business can mean the difference between stagnation and sustainable growth, this explains why TQM can deliver truly impressive results. Conversely, it also highlights the opportunities many organisations miss by ignoring TQM.

Some background. Total Quality Management originated in the 1950s, when W Edwards Deming used it to transform Japan from an economic disaster zone into one of the leading industrial powers of the modern world.

Virtually unknown until the late 1980s in other parts of the world, TQM was then tried in many Western countries with relatively weak results. Many theories have been suggested to explain this, including claims that the methodology can only work within Japanese culture.

In my observations, the prevailing culture can indeed pave the way or it can roadblocks the adoption of TQM, but we don’t need Japanese culture to make it work – we just need a different culture.

Deming summed up Total Quality Management in 14 points. The first one calls for constancy of purpose.  Not many businesses in the Western world have this. Bound by periodic reporting, most companies feel compelled to pursue short-term shareholder satisfaction rather than long-term strategies.

Unfortunately, countries fare no better. The frequency and continual focus on elections result in short sighted government policies designed to win votes instead of driving sustainable progress. Then, every time the voters change the government, it causes a shift in economic direction. This results in jerky behaviour at a national level, leading to economic and social waste.

Bottom line, the first of Deming’s points also happens to be the first reason why so few organisations can successfully apply his management method. But, even if an organisation manages to stick to a strategy and pursue a constant purpose, all dreams about using TQM will likely end at the second point on Deming’s list – the adoption of a new philosophy.

Philosophy deals with fundamental matters such as one’s understanding of reality, existence, values, reason, mind and language. To adopt a new philosophy means the acceptance of a new paradigm. More importantly it also means that you need to be prepared to drop your current paradigm, and no one finds this easy.

When Deming listed the adoption of a new philosophy as one of his fundamental points, he actually meant just that. If you don’t change the way you see the world, the people around you, and yourself, you won’t be able to transform the way you operate. If you keep doing what you did yesterday, don’t expect different results today – this would be irrational, to put it gently.

This may sound like common sense, but the ability to think and act with such clarity doesn’t come easy.  Most people default towards defending their past actions and point of view – blaming the markets, competitors, government regulations or their own team if the results fall short of expectations. This usually means that they continue with the same approach, possibly with more enthusiasm, despite mounting evidence that it doesn’t work.

To avoid this ineffectual cycle, you must accept that what you see, hear and think has the ‘I’ in front of it, meaning that what actually happens differs from what you perceive. Hence, you must learn to verify everything that matters – through measurement, extra reflection and feedback from others. This will allow you to arrive at a more accurate view of the situation.

To think like this requires a degree of humility, but don’t view humility as just a nice personality trait. View it as a powerful life and business tool as it allows people to see, accept and act on realities others avoid. In a way, humility gives us an extra Queen on the chessboard of life.

Many years ago, I had the privilege of being coached by Robert Kiyosaki, who gained fame after he published the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad.  Robert gave me my first lesson in humility – he ‘woke me up’ by telling me to stop thinking in terms of being right or wrong and only assess myself by the results I get. I call this an utter honesty principle, and it goes to the core of the TQM method.

If my results fall short of what I want, I now accept that somewhere I must be making errors. What I hold as self-evident truths matters little if great results don’t flow from my ideas. The quality of my output reflects my way of thinking.

Now, does the pursuit of a solid strategy combined with humble management guarantee success?  Not really, as you have to master all of Deming’s 14 points. But, in my experience constancy of purpose and humility have the most fundamental importance in TQM; they need to be mastered before the remaining 12 principles can deliver the results you seek.

Sounds like a difficult transition? You bet. In my experience, only a few individuals and organisations have managed to embrace the new philosophy required to significantly boost the quality of management. Of those who did, they continue to shine in spite of all the economic upheavals and challenges of our time.

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Andrew Gorecki, MD of Retail Directions, has worked with the retail industry since 1985. Industry insiders appreciate his strategic advice and insights, as he lives and breathes for the industry. Andrew received a nomination for the Australian Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2010.
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