But, derided as it often is, the quality movement has helped produce remarkable results for companies that have taken it seriously. And no British organisation could have been more committed to their idea than TNT UK, the transport company that last week won the 1998 European Quality Award after being a runner-up for three years.
Now owned by TPG Group - part of the former Netherlands state post office and telecommunications company - the organisation best known for transporting a hefty proportion of Britain's newspapers and periodicals has long been identified with its gung-ho, "must get through" attitude in keeping with its Australian roots. But in winning this prize on top of the 1994 UK Quality Award it has shown that it can marry such an approach with attention to systems.
Alan Jones, the company's chief executive, admits that in the past the company focused rather more on getting the job done than on putting in place the right processes. But he now claims that the organisation of more than 9,000 employees is better balanced.
"If you're too systemised you might convene a committee, set up working parties, form project groups, appoint a project director, get a new system from head office or bring in a load of consultants. Before long, you haven't delivered your parcels, the deadline has been missed and you've lost the plot," he says in an article in European Quality Award Report.
"We have created an empowered culture where working groups can convene instantly, meeting in the corridor if necessary, and allocate responsibilities to make things happen in the twinkling of an eye."
It is this ability to combine the sort of attitudes usually seen in start- ups with the complexities associated with an organisation operating nearly 5,000 vehicles that is credited with making TNT so successful in Britain's highly competitive road-transport sector. Turnover is now approaching pounds 500m and profits have risen consistently over the past five years.
Mr Jones attributes a lot to the "business excellence model" developed by the European Foundation of Quality Management. Companies adopting the model systematically measure not just their financial performance but also how they fare against such criteria as customer and employee satisfaction and the environmental impact of their activities.
Winning the award involves submitting a 75-page dossier of activities, with supporting evidence, and allowing an international team of assessors open access to operations. But Mr Jones believes it is all worth it. "Without five years of self-assessment, we would not be where we are today," he says.
Tony Curley, the company's quality director, agrees on the importance of being dedicated to the task. Pointing out that TNT uses the model as "a way of driving continuous improvement", he says: "You've got to have whole-hearted support. You've got to have a leader like Alan who sees the benefits."
But it is not all about leadership. TNT makes much of the enthusiasm of its people. Mr Jones stresses that TNT is "an ordinary company providing an everyday kind of service". He adds: "We're not manufacturing nose cones for rockets, or putting men on the moon. We move things from A to B. What differentiates us is our "must get through" factor. Plus the self-belief of our people."
Turning that assertion into results requires hard work and a consistent message. It also requires listening to people and involving them. As a result, all employees are surveyed annually on what they think about the company, and the management responds to comments.
Many companies that go down this road fail because their employees become worn out by the welter of different initiatives. Mr Jones believes that TNT does not suffer in the same way because it maintains an enjoyable atmosphere. Training and developing people in a systematic way should not take the fun out of it, he says.
Nevertheless, Mr Curley indicates that high performance creates the sort of atmosphere that might not suit everybody. "It's a very fast-moving environment," he says. "It's a matter of being aware of what the customer wants and having people who like that environment."Reuse content