ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

April 1998


Forging New Ways To Work

Celebrating Success

JCPenney Spells Out A METHOD For Success

Roberts Express Delivers CATs

Stories Of The Future

Taxes, Oscars And Performance Appraisals


Quality, Wherefore Art Thou?
by Peter Block

The Bottom Line Benefits Of Participation
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


Quality, Wherefore Art Thou?
by Peter Block

The interest in quality improvement is quiet compared to a few years ago. We are living the myth that the quality movement has become so ingrained in our way of doing business that we no longer need to give it a special name.

There are smaller numbers of quality professionals working for organizations, there is reduced attendance at quality conferences, and the office walls where quality measures used to be displayed, are now empty. I am told that what has changed is that every manager now takes quality improvement as an integral part of their job.

I am not so sure.

It seems that there has been a shift in values from quality improvement to transaction time and economics. The quality movement was born of our concern for competitiveness and brought widespread focus to customers, the elimination of errors and the involvement of employees. There was a spirit and hope in these efforts that has faded.
Now we seem to care more about cost cutting and speed than we do about customers and people.

In the Name of Speed, Relationships and Service Have Become Electronic
The majority of conversations have a machine at one end. Telephone tag is now the norm. A friend of mine, Dick Axelrod, left me a message that symbolizes modern conversation. His message was "Hi, this is Dick. You're it!" When you do answer the phone, people are often disappointed.

When we call for customer service, we get a taped recording, which then transfers us to another recording. You have to ask for an exception to reach a human voice.

Speed has replaced substance and contact. We don't send anything in the mail, which means I never see the humanity of anyone's handwriting. Too much trouble. We needed overnight delivery, and when that was too slow, we sent a fax and now its e-mail. What was designed to improve communication has the effect of creating a false sense of urgency and messages that are void of personality.

Our Relationship with Employees Has Become More Instrumental
The workday has expanded into the evening hours. For many people, the eight-hour day is only a memory. Our parents once fought for the eight-hour day and now we have surrendered it voluntarily.

The workplace has invaded our car and our home. I now take and receive phone calls everywhere. As I work more and more at home, I delude myself into thinking that because I am at home, I am living a more balanced life. Not true, now I am unbalanced closer to the kitchen.

The workplace of the future promises to become employee free. We seem to have acquiesced to the idea that employee loyalty is a thing of the past. We are all self-employed. Part-time workers. Since organizations can no longer offer a safe and predictable future, we are on our own, packing parachutes. We make no commitment to the organization; it makes no commitment to us. We romanticize this alienation by calling it the virtual organization.

Making Money and Reducing Costs Have Become the Point
The dominant value of the private sector is now shareholder value. This means that we are basically working for shareholders, not customers or community. We grow the business by shopping for acquisitions and reduce headcount to pay the bill.

The movement in the public sector is to remove functions from government believing that the private sector can do better. If you believe this, look at what has happened in health care. Costs have gone down, with service following close behind.

These trends are questions of quality. Dr. Deming declared that quality was ultimately a question of the human spirit. If that is true, the obsession with cost, economics and speed is hard on the human spirit.
Perhaps what the quality movement needs now is to refocus on the quality of our experience. If spirit is to be renewed, it will be found in the quality of life within our institutions. Where we once needed to focus on the tools needed to improve the quality of product or service to a customer, we now need to confront the materialism of wealth and speed as the dominant values.

Quality needs to be redefined as the care for the well-being of the whole institution. The workplace will always need committed, accountable employees and managers. If we allow an organization, in the name of progress, to become an unpopulated, hollow shell, customers will feel this and leave as soon as they have a choice.

Some Beginnings
We can begin by reclaiming the eight-hour workday. When will we say no to two people doing the job of four? We need to create economic literacy within our organizations so we can intelligently question the cost cutting demands we now accept so meekly.

Stop leaving messages on machines and tell companies that if a person does not answer the phone we will not place the order or use the service.

Let's tell the truth about how little commitment really exists to participation and employee involvement. "Been there, done that" is a conversation-stopping form of denial. When it comes to redistributing choice to lower levels, spreading the experience of self-management, creating dialogue between the top and the bottom, we have hardly begun. What we have done is "Said that, moved on."

We might create some boundaries around allowing information technology to define our future. Bill Gates is the prophet of isolation. He would substitute an electronic relationship for one that requires presence, touch and place. Technology is not the problem; it is just that it gets out of balance. Keep the technology as the tool, not the point.

What is most disturbing is that voices for genuine involvement have fallen silent. We act as if money, speed and virtual existence are the wave of the future. They are not. They are today's version of the industrialization that has been dominant for 300 years. Today, however, it is our dialogue, our homes and our emotional connection to the workplace that is being industrialized.

We may not be able to change any of this, but we can certainly call it into question.

April '98 News for a Change | Email Editor


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