The press has carried many stories about a phenomenon called TQM.
TQM, Total Quality Management, is reported to be the answer to the many
ills of every community from Information Technologists to Hospital Administrators.
The tenets of Total Quality Management, TQM, seem innocent enough. After
all, who would be against quality?
One of the chief tenets of TQM is the idea of continuous process improvement.
This means tireless effort towards maintaining a never ending dissatisfaction
with the quality as it was and as it is, always looking for improvements,
even before the present has solidified into a stodgy status quo. In practice,
this deep dissatisfaction means that a practitioner’s work is never done.
The work to improve the work continues even after crossing the finish line.
There might be a finish line for the customer, but there can never be one
for the practitioner.
For the practitioner, TQM might be better described as Totally Questionable
Motives. Why would anyone choose to work in a context where there are no
finish lines? What kind of relationship is possible where one party’s job
is to never accomplish anything without looking upward to the next accomplishment?
Another tenet of TQM is that customer expectations are to be exceeded.
If the customer asks for one scoop of ice cream, give them two for the
price of one. This rule seems dishonest. If I ask my customer what they
want and then take it upon myself to ignore their wants and give them something
else instead, am I creating a more satisfied customer or am I merely satisfying
some personal need? What happens if I simply satisfy my customer? I have
failed. This tenet guarantees that the practitioner loses if they manage
to “only” satisfy the customer or the customer “loses” because the practitioner
decided to ignore the requirements and exceed them instead.
A real concern with the exceed customer expectations rule is that the
definition of customer in TQM terms leaves out the practitioner. A practitioner
must be their own customer, too, or risk compromising their best intentions
to the cruel whim of the other constiuenticies. This fosters a master/slave
relationship, where what happens to the master (customer) is always more
important than what happens to the slave.
“Commerce between master and slave is despotism.” Thomas Jefferson.
Somewhere in between continuous quality improvement and exceeding expectations
lies a no-man’s land. A place unfit for human habitation. This is a mine
field filled with double binding rules. For instance, to (just) meet expectations
is to fail to meet the expectations that you would exceed expectations.
Meeting these expectations is impossible. How does one manage to meet the
expectation that you’ve exceeded expectations? The expectation that the
search for quality improvement is never-ending creates a journey without
end for the hapless practitioner. You cannot arrive if the purpose is endless
TQM is better understood as a set of Totally Questional Motives. I can
want to provide a high quality experience without expecting that quality
will “continuously improve.” I can never satisfy myself if I must ignore
what works for me in pursuit of exceeding your expectations. These objectives
seem purposeless, meaningless, banal, and self destructive.
I’d rather have the sort of relationship with my suppliers that does
not rely upon me being a despot or them being my slave. I understand that
my expectations are often easily exceeded simply because I set unrealistically
low expectations for myself, not because I set reasonable expectations
for myself in the belief that someone will magically exceed them; giving
me what I would not (or could not) give to myself. I can improve the quality
without expecting to continuously improve. Nothing in this world is continuous,
and expecting continuous can only guarantee my failure to achieve anything.
Why would anyone engage in such relationships? These motives seem at
root dishonest. They set the practitioner up as slave , but also require
that the practitioner be smarter than their slave master. If my job is
to exceed your expectations, I must be able to understand what would exceed
your expectations. If I am to continually improve, I must accept eternal
mediocrity as both my birthright and my legacy. To require continuous improvement
requires continual devaluation of what I have already accomplished. It
is a recipe for destroying your own good works. Under these conditions
we both become slaves.
I believe that individuals innocently embrace these deadly notions,
never suspecting the poison lurking within them. Many IT professionaly
now find their jobs depressing and their customers despotic. Many customers
of such misguided practitioners find their suppliers inept. How could they
be otherwise if baseline capable is defined as continuously improving and
exceeding expectations? These goals are aspirations, anyway, not useful
Those who pursue the North Star in a sailboat are lousy navigators.
Mistaking bearing for objective is a subtle but enormous error. Progress
in this world is never continuous. Discontinuous progress is more useful,
allowing some stasis between the chaos of change. Excessive targets merely
inflate reasonable expectations. The result is unreason masquerading as
reasonable. This cannot help but insure the insanity of both the practitioner
and their customers.
Real relationships require more realistic expectations, and more forgiving
conditions. Real relationships could never survive on a diet of continual
excess, even if the excess came in the most loving and caring guises. Real
relationships navigate a path that well tolerates discontinuity. Sometimes
things are better, sometimes worse. Only fantasy relationships do anything
continuously. And those continuously degrade until they must either get
real or end.
Be wary of any practitioner that sells the TQM snake oil. Look for expectations
that seem reasonable. High flying stocks inevitably slump. Bubbles burst.
Cookies crumble. The real foundation for lasting relationships is paved
with a variety of experiences. The best relationships have decided at some
point to stick with it anyway, even though it didn’t seem to be working
so well at that moment. It is this essential discontinuity that preserves
and sustains us. Not the endlessly alluring expectation of continually
bigger, or better, or best.
David A. Schmaltz
McMennamin’s Edgefield Manor