Why is it difficult to succeed with quality improvements?

Measuring Business Excellence

ISSN: 1368-3047

Publication date: 1 September 2004


Hensler, P.D. (2004), "Why is it difficult to succeed with quality improvements?", Measuring Business Excellence, Vol. 8 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/mbe.2004.26708cab.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Why is it difficult to succeed with quality improvements?

Why is it difficult to succeed with quality improvements?

Some reflections by Professor Douglas Hensler, Lockheed Martin Engineering Management Program, University of Colorado at Boulder, USA and Professor Bengt Klefsjö, Division of Quality and Environmental Management, Luleå University of Technology, Sweden

Some people see total quality management (TQM) as something necessary to reach competitiveness and therefore emphasize the relation between TQM and success. A number of recent investigations support this competitiveness/success link, reporting that organizations that have successfully implemented TQM also attain better financial results than "the average company"[1].

Others claim that TQM is merely a management fad and point out, quite correctly, that many companies have failed in their attempts to implement TQM[2]. As a result, the concept of TQM is less popular today as demonstrated by the growing resistance in the USA and the movement away from using "quality" in naming conventions. Instead, new concepts such as six sigma and business excellence, have supplanted TQM as "the new management paradigm", the latter shown by, for instance, the EFQM's change from a quality framework to an excellence framework.

Why is it so difficult then to implement TQM in a successful way and what can academicians and practitioners do to improve the situation? To address the first part of the question, in our opinion there are several reasons why implementation is difficult. These include conceptual, terminological, structural, and mental reasons.

Terminologically and structurally, vague definitions of what TQM really means abound. Implementing a management system is not easy when it is described as "a way to …", "a philosophy for …", "a culture of …", "an approach for …", or "a business strategy that …". Deming also thought that TQM is terminologically vague, saying "the trouble with total quality management, the failure of TQM, you can call it, is that there is no such thing. It is a buzzword. I have never used the term, as it carries no meaning"[3].

While vague definitions have grown as the TQM concept has evolved over time, many people now agree on a TQM framework. To us, TQM is a management system[4] consisting of values, methodologies and tools. Values constitute core objectives and form the culture of the organization. To imbed values in organizational culture, all managers, at all levels, all the time must engage in active practice that supports the values by continually and consistently reinforcing the organization's vision, mission and strategy. This is an outcomes perspective that aims at inspiring individuals to practice TQM in the same sense that a physician practices medicine. One ultimate aim is for all individuals in the organization to subconsciously enact the question, "Is my behavior and is my decision consistent with the vision, mission and strategy of the organization?" This demands of managers a transparency in their daily behaviors and decisions. That is, managers abandon from hidden agendas and away from unpredictable behavior.

As a consequence of this value-centered orientation, which includes a strong dedication to customers, managers have to choose methodologies (i.e. ways to work) that are supported by suitable tools (i.e. concrete schemes, diagrams or statistical decision tools) for achieving success[5]. Indeed, the aim of this system of values, methodologies and tools is to increase external and internal customer satisfaction with a reduced amount of resources. This definition lends to us, and we know to many others as well, a structure and a conceptual basis of what TQM really means. When new concepts are launched we use this terminology to classify them. For example, the six sigma concept is a methodology within the TQM framework and is not a substitute[6]. To manage in an alternative way, continually jumping from one concept to another without a consistent framework results in a loss of the important long-term perspective.

Another reason for difficulties with TQM implementation is the vocabulary that we employ. We use a language full of abbreviations and acronyms (i.e. QFD, FMEA, ABC, SPC and so on)[7]. The introduction of an acronym, or a badly chosen name, can be intimidating, especially when insufficient definitions and descriptions prevail. Alternatively, we ought to exercise care by choosing words and concepts that give signals, the correct signals to those with whom we talk and engage to help and support. Why, for instance, talk about "PDSA-cycle" instead of "improvement cycle", why use "the seven OC-tools" instead of the "the seven improvement tools"? Why use the concept of "quality costs", when "poor-quality costs" conveys the correct signal?

Of course, to lay the reason for unsuccessful TQM implementation at the doorstep of words and definitions is a gross simplification. The most important reason for the failures is that we as managers underestimate the difficulties and challenges of such a large transformation and cultural change that TQM really entails[8]. That successful TQM implementation is a visceral organizational change cannot be overstated, but the change is not impossible provided managers and leaders see clearly the metanoia they must undertake[9]. The change is simple, but not easy. Simple because, even though a coherent positive theory has not been cogently expressed, normative theory exists in abundance and it is founded in the patricians of the positive theory[10]. We know what managers and leaders should be doing. Actually doing what should be done has proven to be a significant challenge, often taking a back seat to an unhealthy obsession with "sense of urgency" and activity over thought.

At a global level, TQM has conceptually failed because academicians have never provided a complete and concise theoretical framework for TQM. Yes, facets of TQM such as statistical process control are deeply rooted in theory; however, an integrated body of theoretical underpinnings for TQM presented in a way that is relevant to business still escapes us[11]. Part of this is due to the inadequacy of traditional neo-classical economics to explain TQM. This is so because that body of theory addresses ordinary goods under a static selection process, stressing the long-run competitive equilibrium result. Add to this problem the evolving theory from other social sciences including psychology and sociology and one begins to wonder if we can make sense of TQM's breadth and depth.

Fortunately, there is hope from the economics field. New growth economics[12], with its emphasis on knowledge, a good much different from that addressed by neo-classical economics, provides a dynamic view of the enterprise that is inextricably tied to fundamental tenets of TQM such as the PDSA cycle (or the improvement cycle, to move away from another acronym) and Deming's system of profound knowledge[13]. There is also hope from efforts to bridge the social sciences such as the work of Jensen and Meckling[14].

One more important issue is the following: Today, most experts emphasize the importance of small organizations to the economy. In Sweden, for instance, 99.8 percent of the companies have less than 200 employees and 98 percent of these even have less than 50 employees. We make this specific reference because small and medium enterprises (SMEs) form a life thread in communities that is becoming increasingly important in the international context. What then does this indicate for the application of TQM concepts? Are they simply scaleable, or is something else required?

The methodologies and tools for TQM are, in most cases, developed as a support to the large organizations. To us, TQM is based on the values, so the culture should be the same independently of the organizational size. But we have to realize that it is not possible for a small organization, with 20 employees say, to use the same approach, the same methodologies, and, maybe, the same tools. We, as advocates for quality improvements, have to realize that the concept of TQM and, not least, the implementation process have to be adapted to the small organization's context. There certainly are numbers of good examples illustrating that TQM in small organizations is not at all an impossible issue. Look at, for instance, Branch-Smith Printing Division with 68 employees, recipient of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award 2002 or Bulten Trading with 27 employees who got the Swedish Quality Award in 1998.

We live in a world in which competition is more severe than ever, largely due to technological advances and diminished borders, in a world where the concept of customer has evolved from buyer to all that the product or service influences, in a world where the involved system is larger than ever and where bounded organizational TQM is insufficient, and where we as citizens of a bounded world face the challenges of our common responsibility.

Today, the areas of quality management, environmental management, and occupational health and safety management are increasingly overlapped and integrated. Just as Gaia theory[15] purports that Mother Earth will respond to alien bodies (think humankind) and extinguish them, it is incumbent upon academic and practicing thought leaders to bring sound and relevant theory and practice to the fore of TQM. In the long run we will need a quality conscious, continuously improving society, which can be called a total quality society or a sustainable society.


  1. 1.

    For instance, Hendricks, K.B. and Singhal, V.R. (1996), "Does implementing an effective TQM program actually improve operating performance?", Management Science, Vol. 43 No. 9, pp. 1258-74. and Hansson, J. and Eriksson, H. (2002), "The impact of TQM on financial performance", Measuring Business Excellence, Vol. 6 No. 4, pp. 44-54, show that quality award recipients in the USA and in Sweden, respectively, reach better financial results than "the average company".

  2. 2.

    See, for instance, discussions in van der Wiele, A., Williams, A.R.T. and Dale, B.G. (2000), "Total quality management. Is it a fad, fashion or fit?", Quality Management Journal, Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 65-79, and Miller, D. and Hartwick, J. (2002), "Spotting management fads", Harvard Business Review, October, pp. 26-7.

  3. 3.

    See Deming, W.E. (1994), "Report card on TQM", Management Review, January, pp. 22-5.

  4. 4.

    System should here be interpreted in the sense of Deming, i.e. as a number of interdependent components with a common aim.

  5. 5.

    A discussion about TQM as a system can be found in Hellsten, U. and Klefsjö, B. (2000), "TQM as a management system consisting of values, techniques and tools", The TQM Magazine, Vol. 12 No. 4, pp. 238-44.

  6. 6.

    A discussion can be found in Klefsjö, B., Wiklund, H. and Edgeman, R. (2001), "Six sigma seen as a methodology for total quality management", Measuring Business Excellence, Vol. 5 No. 1, pp. 31-5.

  7. 7.

    Of course, the name TQM is another bad example. In Sweden TQM is often translated to Swedish and if that name is translated back to English it corresponds roughly to "progressive quality improvements", which is longer but gives more information and better signals.

  8. 8.

    A discussion of that matter can be found, e.g. in Hansson, J. (2003), "Total quality management aspects of implementation and performance", Doctoral thesis, Division of Quality and Environmental Management, Luleå University of Technology, and references therein.

  9. 9.

    See Senge, P. (1990), The Fifth Discipline, Currency Doubleday, New York, NY.

  10. 10.

    Normative theory is prescriptive in nature with statements such as, "This ought to be …" or "Managers should …". To be effective, normative theory requires sound basis in positive theory. Positive theory is natural law and empirically based and follows the logic of, "If the manager does this, then the following will result".

  11. 11.

    See Foley, K. (2003), Five Essays on Quality Management, forthcoming, Consensus Books, Australia.

  12. 12.

    For instance, see Arthur, B. (1994), Increasing Returns and Path-Dependence in the Economy, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI; Arthur, B. (1996), "Increasing returns and the new world of business", Harvard Business Review, July-August; Romer, P.M. (1986), "Increasing returns and long-run growth", The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 94 No. 5, October; Romer, P.M. (1989), "Endogenous Technological Change", NBER Working Paper Series No. 3210, Cambridge, MA.

  13. 13.

    See Deming, W.E. (1993), The New Economics, MIT CAES Press, Cambridge, MA.

  14. 14.

    See Jensen, M.C. and Meckling, W.H. (1994), "The Nature of Man", Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, Vol. 7 No. 2, Summer.

  15. 15.

    15 See Lovelock, J. (1987), Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press, Oxford.