BOOK REVIEW / 'Quality' is a journey: 'Making Quality Work' - George Labovitz, Y S Change and Victor Rosansky: HarperCollins, 16.99 pounds

Click to follow
If ever there was a management concept that captured the popular imagination it was quality. Never mind that it seems odd that there can ever have been a time when producing anything less than defect-free goods was acceptable. Even the most traditional executive has some sense of what Total Quality Management is all about.

Sadly, though, for many the knowledge does not extend far beyond a brief acquaintance. We all have our tales of the company that spends a fortune emblazoning its stationery, vehicles and the rest with slogans such as 'X is a Quality Company' only to produce the same old shoddy workmanship that it always did - and to disappoint customers, who had been encouraged to expect something better. This situation has led to newspaper articles in the US and here that have cast serious doubts over whether the theory can ever really be put into practice.

Not surprisingly for a group of individuals who seem to have made a great emotional investment in the idea, the authors of this book are not so despondent. While they acknowledge that there have been many failures on what has come to be known as 'quality street', these three management consultants with a company called Organisational Dynamics Inc do not attribute them to inherent defects in the system. In fact, many of the organisations supposed to have hit a dead end on this particular road have really lost their sense of direction fairly early on.

Like many management writers, Messrs Labovitz, Change and Rosansky are not afraid of working an analogy to death. So to explain how the 'quality journey' progresses, they have developed the 'road map'. This basically comprises four stages: awakening, in which managers start to talk about quality and to question their old assumptions; active, which is characterised by lots of activity - not all of it co-ordinated - as managers who have caught the 'religion' set up training courses and so forth; breakthrough, where companies become more focused and start to establish long- term relationships with suppliers and customers in an effort to make the quality idea work; and world-class, 'an idealised state' that no organisation achieves all the time but, by inference, the best do some of the time.

The companies that lose their way tend not to get beyond the second, active, stage. Typically, three to six years into the implementation of a quality programme, they have 'a formidable TQM capability'. But they have been unable to convert this into the competitive advantage it is supposed to bring.

This is perhaps because their leaders have focused so long on the means of TQM that they have lost sight of the ends. But whatever the reason, they are clearly in need of help - hence the book.

And assist them it should. There is a tendency not just to convert nouns into verbs, but to opt for one multi-syllable, almost-impossible-to-pronounce word where a shorter one would encapsulate the idea just as effectively.

Nevertheless, the reader who can cope with such things should find much of value within a mere 160-odd pages of main text and a further 30 of appendices. In a deliberate attempt to appeal to the manager with little time or inclination to read vast tomes, the authors have divided even this slender narrative into bite-sized chapters, each with several sub-headings and a conclusion. Most unusually for a book of this type, there is even some cynicism. Each chapter opens with a cartoon of office life that is likely to bring a wry smile to even the most hardened executive.

The heart of the book is the section that deals with the importance of leadership. Indeed, Messrs Labovitz, Change and Rosansky are agreed that this is the 'magic ingredient' that makes quality work in any organisation.

This is not exactly a novel thought. The proponents of just about any management theory will insist that it will be effective only if there is commitment at the top. But it is a useful reminder to all those organisations where the senior management has set up quality departments and thinks its job is done.

Likewise, the challenge to the oft-repeated dictum that 'quality is a journey, not a destination' is highly welcome. While the authors agree that TQM should be a long- term commitment rather than a quick fix, they are realistic enough to say that employees need to see short-term results in order to remain inspired.

If there is a weakness for the British reader, though, it is the choice of examples. The problem is not so much that they are American - that is almost always the case - but that the well-known ones, such as Federal Express and Wal-Mart are too trite, while the lesser-known ones are so obscure that the reader cannot test the claims made on the companies' behalf against their own experience.

One brief piece of evidence, however, serves to demonstrate what the quality movement is all about and what can be achieved.

Back in the early 1980s, Motorola - now internationally renowned for the quality of its products and management - was told by its Japanese customers that its paging systems did not reach the required standards. Motorola's engineers claimed it was impossible to reach the standard being imposed, only to be shown three Japanese-made pagers that already met it.

Motorola was confronted with 'a vivid truth': that the supposedly impossible quality being demanded was not just attainable but essential. If it could not match it, it would be driven out of business. Through a monumental effort the company has surpassed what its engineers initially thought was impossible and gone on to lead the world in related fields.

With increasing globalisation and rising customer expectations, it is up to all managers to realise that quality and, in particular, customer service are vital means of survival.