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January 2001
Volume 8 • Number 1


A Framework for Quality Improvement in the Transportation Industry

Over the past 10 years, quality management has become an important strategic tool for manufacturing and service firms striving to attain competitive success. Numerous studies have documented various elements of quality management and the requirements for successful quality programs in the manufacturing industry. However, there has been a lack of basic and applied quality management research in most service industries. The transportation industry is one such service example. In this research, a survey was used to examine 18 quality practices within the transportation industry and relate these quality initiatives to various success elements of the transportation quality programs. Hypotheses were tested through the use of Bonferroni multiple range tests, bivariate correlation, factor analysis, and multiple linear regression of survey data gathered from within the transportation industry. The survey results showed that many of the quality practices in the transportation industry were positively correlated with firm performance. Multiple linear regression also indicated that both strategic and operations initiatives identified from the literature affected the success of the transportation quality programs. One implication is that transportation organizations should seek to integrate their strategic goals and quality practices to enhance competitive advantage.

Key words: logistics, service industry

by Keah Choon Tan, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Joel D. Wisner, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


Intense global competition has forced many world-class organizations to reexamine how they manage quality as they seek to enhance product quality, customer service, and overall competitiveness (Symons and Jacobs 1995). For several years now, total quality management (TQM) has been recognized by manufacturing executives to be an important strategic issue (Malhotra, Steele, and Grover 1994). As quality awareness has grown, quality management efforts at some companies have resulted in improved competitiveness (Hendricks and Singhal 1996), while similar results in other organizations have remained elusive (Hiam 1993; Grant, Shani, and Krishnan 1994).

Service organizations, in particular the transportation industry, exhibit these characteristics. Competition among transportation companies has increased dramatically, due in part to economic deregulation of the industry, growing demands among shippers for increased levels of service, and the current trend in the creation of carrier-shipper alliances. Efforts to improve performance and competitiveness and the contemporary regulatory environment that continues to be dominated by a trend toward global free market competition have led transportation companies to implement formal quality improvement programs.

Quality improvement efforts in manufacturing have received significant attention by researchers, and results achieved by these companies have been dramatic and well documented (Flynn, Schroeder, and Sakakibara 1995; Ahire, Golhar, and Waller 1996). A comparatively small amount of research attention has been given to the quality improvement strategies of services (for example, transportation companies) although notable successes have been achieved; for example, Federal Express, AT&T, Merrill Lynch, and the Ritz Carlton have all won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. To date, little empirical research exists describing the quality assessment and improvement programs for the service industry, particularly transportation companies. Most of the existing empirical research related to transportation quality tends to be anecdotal, with firms describing general quality practices in their logistics functions, or customer service improvement strategies (Stank 1993; Hopkins et al. 1993). The lack of well-defined linkages between transportation quality practices and performance outcomes have, as a consequence, resulted in firms using initiatives in a piecemeal manner without understanding the potential or long-term impacts (Carman 1993; Mentzer and Conrad 1991). No concerted effort has yet been made in the transportation industry to link quality practices or initiatives to indicators of firm success.

The aim of this research was to develop a framework that would allow linkages between transportation quality practices and firm success to be identified and tested. The existing transportation quality management research was initially examined to derive a set of commonly listed transportation quality practices. Eighteen common quality improvement program practices or elements were identified from the literature and used for the survey. These practices were then categorized into a set of constructs. Finally, the linkages between the transportation quality practices and the success descriptors of the various transportation programs reported by the respondents were tested. A description of the quality elements and the set of constructs follows.