What is Total Quality Management?

The concept of Total Quality Management, or TQM, is single-minded in its purpose:  To improve customer satisfaction.  As simple and as obvious as that may sound, it has taken many decades for the process to evolve to what it is today.  Even now there is not unanimous agreement as to how to achieve this one simple objective, although most businesses follow a similar model that has been fine-tuned over many years. 

The history of quality management can be traced as far back as the 1920s, but it really took off in the late 1940s.  After World War II, the Japanese were desperate to improve the quality of their manufactured products to try and increase their exports and improve market share.  In 1950, an American statistician named W. Edwards Deming, who had developed a concept he called Statistical Quality Control (SQC), was invited to Japan to speak to groups of engineers and scientists.  With the help of Deming and his fourteen-point philosophy of management, Japanese businesses came to understand that the key to creating quality products had to start at the executive level of a business and filter down through the entire organization to make it effective.  Deming taught his philosophy to many Japanese companies, which promoted the concept of engaging employees at every level and every stage of the process and giving them ownership, empowering them to make improvements, and getting their buy-in to the quality process. 

The next phase in the history of quality management began when Joseph Juran arrived in Japan in 1954 to teach quality concepts based on his 1951 publication, Quality Control Handbook.  Although his views and ideas were similar to Deming’s in many respects, they varied in a few key areas.  One was his belief that quality had to be embedded in every aspect of a company’s business in order to develop an effective quality-based culture.  The other main difference between their philosophies, and the one for which Juran is better known, was the assertion that quality should be defined as “fitness for use,” not just “conformance to specifications.” He also helped companies understand that there was a monetary cost associated with quality that could affect the business positively or negatively.  The concept of making quality a function of every part of an organization, not just the manufacturing line was deeply embedded in the Japanese business culture by the 1960s. 

American businesses, reeling from the loss of manufacturing jobs and market share in the late 1970s, finally began to look at what the Japanese were doing and tried to respond.  Total Quality Management, as it had come to be known by that time, quickly spread across US industries, led by companies like Motorola and General Electric, desperate to regain market share.  American businesses began to come back in the 1990s by proving to customers that they were committed to making high-quality products. 

Today, TQM, although characterized differently by each company that practices it, consists of several key principles.  The primary philosophy is based on a model of continuous improvement designed to exceed the expectations of the customer, identify and correct quality issues at the earliest possible stage in the process, and incorporate quality into the final product.  This is accomplished through the following methodology:

  • The company’s culture develops employees and involves them in all areas of the process to work together to improve quality.
  • Every change in the process must improve customer satisfaction, or it is valueless.  
  • Defects in a product are analyzed using rigorous methods to find the root cause of the deficiency, correct it, and put procedures in place to prevent its recurrence.
  • The company works to continuously improve manufacturing processes through the use of quality procedures.
  • Employees are encouraged to actively participate in process improvement efforts, help address quality issues, and present ideas to reduce losses or resolve process deficiencies.
  • Employees are trained on a regular basis to improve their understanding of the process and quality concepts.
  • The leaders of the business, from the Executive Board down, drive the TQM process and create an atmosphere that ensures success.

Total Quality Management ensures the long-term success of an organization by providing the best possible customer experience.  Everyone in the organization, from the custodian to the CEO, is a critical part of the team, is valued by the company, and is encouraged to participate in the continuous-improvement process. 

By identifying and correcting problems early in the process, the cost to the organization is minimized in terms of scrap, rework, double-handling, and dissatisfied customers.

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