Listen to the Workers
Open communication and employee involvement help make TQM a success
by Harry P. Richard
One of the most important elements to consider when embarking on a total quality management (TQM) program is recognizing that TQM is an employee involvement process. Capturing the ideas of individuals actually performing the work is essential to the success of any TQM endeavor.
All too often, however, managers get so caught up in their day-to-day activities that they fail to listen to the workers. This can result in missing the bottom-line successes that TQM offers. The following case studies, one occurring within a TQM environment and one taking place outside such an environment, illustrate how listening to workers can result in big TQM payback opportunities.
Case study A: Involving the right people
A TQM team at a supplier of thick wall, large diameter pipe was assigned the task of determining why radiographic test results for circumferential welds were varying. The team, mostly comprised of engineers, asked a pipe fitter for any input he might have regarding the problem.
The pipe fitter said he knew exactly what the problem was. He explained that the pipes are rotated on heavy duty rolls during welding in order to make the welding process easier. The best rolls were always used first, but when these ran out, the pipe fitter was forced to use less adequate rolls. These bad rolls caused variation in the welding and altered the radiographic test results.
The pipe fitter said that his foreman and a welder were the only other employees aware of the situation. And when the team asked him why management had not been told about the bad rolls, he said the last time someone in his department complained about the equipment, management "chewed them out."
Thanks to the worker's input, the TQM team chose a course of action. Not only did the team replace the bad rolls, it attempted to create a supportive environment so that workers felt free to express their ideas and concerns.
This one case study changed my life forever. And after I experienced it, I became committed to listening to the people who do the work.
Case study B: Thinking outside the box
A buyer approached me one day and said that although he had no rational basis, he felt he was paying too much for industrial gas. While many would have dismissed the buyer at this point (we are too tempted to act on facts and not feelings), the buyer and I decided to investigate the situation more closely.
We invited a competing gas company to look at our industrial gas distribution system. The competitor took one look at the cake of ice on top of my company's liquid oxygen heat exchanger and said that too much oxygen was being used; there was far too much ice forming on a hot August day. The loss of oxygen was particularly confusing because there was only one cutting machine running at the time.
A team assigned to investigate the problem discovered numerous leaks in both the oxygen and argon industrial gas distribution systems. As a result, the team removed external oxygen and argon tanks, stopped using the internal piping system and installed individual gas cylinders at applicable work centers.
Listen and act
These two instances demonstrate how listening to the workers can result in substantial TQM payback opportunities. In the first case study, the TQM team would have missed a big opportunity had it neglected to interview the pipe fitter and act on his input. In the second case study, the managers would have missed a big payback if they acted on facts alone and failed to listen to the buyer's concerns--his feelings.
Managers can learn two points from these examples. First, they should listen to and maintain open communication with their employees to avoid stifling ideas. Second, they should be willing to act on employees' feelings and concerns in addition to facts.
HARRY P. RICHARD is the manager of quality at Epimed International Inc. in Gloversville, NY. He earned a master's degree in management engineering from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. He is a quality systems lead auditor for the Registrar Accreditation Board and an ASQ member.