Where Excellence Went Wrong

The Total Quality Management (TQM) movement started in Japan and spread as people recognised the tremendous benefits. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Baldrige Model and EFQM Model appeared in the US and Europe – holistic management frameworks that went beyond the product to look at all aspects of the business. Initially, these were championed by many high-profile organisations and TQM was “the hot topic” on the management agenda. Its popularity peaked in the 90s; since then there has been a steady decline. Now excellence models tend to be used in discrete pockets within a large company, like a single manufacturing site, or within the public sector. So what went wrong…?

Part of the reason lies within HOW these Models where used – another part lies with WHO was using them. Excellence Models are designed as holistic tools – they cover all aspects of the organisation from the Leadership & Strategy through People and Resource Management through to Product Development & Delivery and, finally, Customer Relationship Management.

However, the “QM” in TQM was usually interpreted as “Quality Management”. This interpretation meant it was often coupled with process management, product quality and ISO 9000 certification. It was the job of the Quality Manager, not line management. Don’t get me wrong – product quality and quality management are very important. But the holistic excellence models went far beyond these traditional boundaries.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to work with some Quality Managers who were capable of applying excellence models at a strategic level – most of them have since moved on to more senior roles. But I’ve also worked with many who tried to use excellence models as a check-list – something it’s not designed for and something that tends to produce generic, meaningless feedback.

This is nothing new. We all know that the success of any organisational development initiative depends more heavily on the individuals selected to deploy it than the tool itself. If the wrong people are involved, it doesn’t matter how good the tool is… and if you’re looking at a tool that applies to the whole organisation, you can’t only involve people from a single function.

Fast forward 20+ years to today. We find a number of “excellence evangelists” who are completely convinced that excellence models work and freely eulogise about the benefits to all who will listen. Some are lucky enough to be in organisations where they are supported but many more are not and therefore can’t “practice what they preach”. They’re often met with comments like “we tried that before and it didn’t work”. I’m sure you recognise these people – or maybe you are one yourself. At conferences and events, we see the “same old faces” year after year. Where’s the new blood? The new ideas? The “next generation”…?

We know that, if applied correctly, excellence models can deliver great benefits. We also know that “management fads” come in cycles. The vast majority of CEOs interviewed place topics like sustainability, competitiveness and innovation high on their priority lists. Topics the excellence models were designed to address. But we must learn the lessons of the past. Excellence is not “quality management”. It’s not just the domain of operations and it is definitely not a staff function. It wasn’t in Japan and it helped them build one of the world’s strongest economies.

So, where does this leave us? If we’re going to re-energise the excellence movement, we need a new approach. Look at the success of Six Sigma – the vast majority of the tools in the toolkit went back to the 1950s. Someone just added new packaging. Can we do the same with “excellence”?

To me, it seems simple. It seems we’re missing a single two-letter word. “OF”. Excellence Models are not about Quality Management. They’re about the Quality OF Management. To be able to talk credibly about the Quality OF Management clearly requires a different skill set and different experience. But there are many people who gained some experience in quality management over the past 20 years who are now in “senior management” positions. People who know the potential of this tool and are now in a position to use it at a strategic level.

It’s time for some new thinking…

On leading change

To change is to become different. In Japanese, the word for “to differ” is chigau. What makes this worth mentioning is the Japanese word for “wrong”. If you haven’t guessed already, here’s a hint – you’ve seen it already… it’s chigau.

Without much thought, it’s easy to see why people might think the Japanese believe that change is wrong.

Far from being wrong, change is both necessary and can be very positive. Of course, nobody likes having change imposed on them. If I were to rearrange your kitchen while you were at work, so you found pots when you opened the press to get a coffee mug, you would be upset. However, if I was to take you shopping for new living room furniture and a next generation television on my dime, the result might be different.


Why? Part of it might be because I’m investing to make your life better but the same could be said of the time I spent arranging things more logically in your kitchen. The main reason is because you are involved in the change.

I’ve worked in one organization where over 10% of its people globally were working on a major strategic change initiative. It was a huge number but it still left thousands of the people uninvolved, in danger of being the people who couldn’t find the coffee mug as things were changed without their knowing. Running the business, looking after customers, and generating revenue are important responsibilities. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth – nothing like good coffee – to have been working hard on these tasks only to find thing changing around you without knowing why.

This makes it incumbent on leaders to find ways to involve these people and give them a voice. It also makes it incumbent on those working on change to champion it and communicate what’s happening to their colleagues.

Contrary to what one might think having learned the meaning of chigau, the Japanese don’t think that change is wrong. Indeed, they embrace it and all change together as is evidenced by the massive national best practice benchmarking programme they undertook in the early 1900s that changed Japan from a feudal society into one of the world’s most advanced and successful nations.

Should change initiatives ever be hidden from those who might oppose them?

The question makes the implicit assumption that the change would be positive for the organization as a whole even if not for all stakeholders. And, it’s very broad.

Does it include small changes that would force top management into micromanagement if they were to be involved or only more significant change? Does it mean hiding initiatives from political opponents in senior positions of power or from other stakeholders such as customers, partners or the organization’s workforce? exactly is been hidden – the fact that change is being considered and options are being evaluated or the fact that a decision has been made?

Irrespective of the details, the short answer is “no”.

I believe that in order to be a good leader people need to be able to trust you. Hiding change initiatives from those who oppose them undermines your trustworthiness. This makes my position not simply an ethical stance but also a pragmatic one.

Leaders (at all levels) need to respect an organization’s people. This includes those with conflicting opinions and, indeed, it is often these opinions that need to be heard and evaluated to ensure the implicit assumption is correct.

I’ve led change in different industries, in 9 different countries/cultures and, while it has seldom been easy, I have found that being open is the best approach. Rather than keep key opponents to change in the dark, include them. Listen to their concerns and involve them in making the change happen. This has the following effects:

  • If they have legitimate concerns, they are heard and can be taken into account
  • They have less time “outside the room” to work an undermining the initiative
  • As things progress, their involvement detracts from their ability to oppose the change

Don’t compromise on objectives or timelines (unless it really makes sense) but stay open to strategic learning. You won’t always win over opponents but that’s not the objective, the objective is to implement the change.