ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

November 1998


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The Power Of Senior Teams

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Total Quantity Management
by Peter Block

New Tools For Business Success
by Gregory P. Smith


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Views for a Change

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Total Quantity Management
By Peter Block

It seems the quality movement is in remission. It is a passing worth noting. We now live in a quantitative period where measurement has triumphed over meaning. In 1891, William Thompson, Lord Kelvin wrote:

“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.”

I never personally met Lord Kelvin, but I hear his voice all the time. We have come to believe that if you cannot measure something, it is not real and perhaps does not exist. You hear statements such as, “What you measure are the results you get.” I heard of a vision statement for a staff group that said their core values were: trust, respect and accurate gauging. I love the term—accurate gauging. It evokes the image of a machine shop; minute measurements, hard edges, vises and low tolerances. Sounds like the workplace of the 90s.

A Circle of Quality
The quality movement began with a different spirit. The efforts in total quality began with the growth of quality circles; a weekly meeting of workers discussing ways to improve service, lower costs and reduce errors. Everyone recognized that the meeting itself was as important in improving quality as the solutions it came up with. Something fundamental shifted when core workers were given the time to meet, without supervision, to come up with their own answers.

Before that, Quality Control and Quality Assurance were king. Management thought that people could not be trusted to assure their own quality. Having employees meet in a circle without the boss was somewhere between mutiny and revolution. But revolution happened and it worked.

This was in an era when corporate America realized they finally had some competition. The focus on costs, the control aspects of quality and an indifference to customers had not been a problem in a time when companies dominated their marketplace.

Facing the loss of customers, companies responded by initiating qualitative programs that expanded the quality circle to include employee involvement, empowerment, vision and values statements, and other efforts that gave priority to the employee and cultural changes.

The focus on involvement and culture at some point took a numeric turn and what began as a weekly conversation turned into a statistical journey. Dialogue became tools, charts, fishbone diagrams and eventually a competition for a national award. Quality circles might have been wounded the moment we started to measure them. The questions became, “How many circles are meeting? How many ideas were generated and what was the dollar value of those ideas?” It always seemed strange that we never asked the same questions of management meetings.

In This Corner, The Heavyweight Champion of the World
Now that America has “won” the Cold War, declared economic victory and Asia is on its knees, something has shifted in our thinking. The quality focus has faded and the attention has turned to quantity. Our concern for human value has turned to a love of size and speed. Concern for customer service has converted to an obsession with market share. America is so attracted to competition that it has decided to buy it. Acquire, merge and reduce headcount to pay for it. Wealth and shareholder value has once more become the primary measure of our success. We don’t complain too much because so many of us are silent beneficiaries.

Show Me the Money
This quantification not only impacted the Quality Movement, it invaded every aspect of our lives. As a nation, we use the stock market as the primary measure of value. When it rises we are happy, when it falls it is front page news. Allan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, is now the most powerful man in America. When he frowns, we sell. When he smiles we buy. If he ran for president, it would be a demotion.

As part of society’s number-mindedness, our communities measure themselves on population growth. Never mind how crowded they are, or whether you have to call a local number to find out the waiting time on the interstate “express” way. We want more people and more housing starts. I was at a zoning meeting recently and the lawyer for the builder said that if the city did not let them build on the property, the land would be rendered useless. Open land without a building, holding nothing but grass and trees is now useless.

At a personal level, when we only value what we can measure, we have in effect quantified and objectified our own selves. We refer to ourselves as “human assets,” human “resources.” I have been decapitated so that only my “head counts.” The primary metric for my well being has become percentage of body fat. I have 24 percent body fat, barely within minimum critical specifications. Every bite becomes a moral crisis. Accurate gauging for the body requires it to be flat and firm. What happened to round and soft?

All of this drains our spirit in the name of measurable results. What happened to the Quality Movement has happened to us. In the switch to measurement and gauging we became institutionalized. At risk is the feeling and qualitative side of work and life—the unmeasurables such as relationships, virtue and compassion. And what about love? If we are looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song suggests, does this mean we should start looking for love in the Bureau of Standards and Measures instead of in the moonlight?

The stock market, housing starts and the shape and firmness of the body are larger expressions of what broke the circles that began our movement towards quality. They are an exaggerated belief in concreteness and numbers that separates us from each other and from experiencing the real meaning of quality. If focusing on facts and measurement was once the strength of the quality movement, it now has become its liability.

Come to a Meeting
We need to rejoin the quality circle that has been broken. Our bodies can be healthy and still round. We can find a circle of neighbors in our community that value relationships for their own sake and the country can work to complete a circle that would include forgiveness and compassion.

And would you come to a quality circle meeting at work? No machines. Face to face conversation for its own value. Talking about how to make this place better and make it our own. Once a week, one hour. I’ll bring the fat grams. If someone wants to measure the results of our meeting, fine – just don’t make it the point.

November '98 News for a Change | Email Editor

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