Transnational Research Associates

The Systemic Nature of
Total Quality Management

A Managerial Model Designed to Endure

Art Madsen, M.Ed.

Throughout the past months, in this series of papers, several well-reputed, professionally validated and popular management systems have been reviewed and analyzed. They all featured characteristics which were both identifiable and readily discernable. Total Quality Management (TQM) is, in fact, another of these systemic approaches to proper management and organizational practice. Since its inception, this systemic approach has gained genuinely committed followers among the ranks of Asian, European and North American executives and corporate managers.

Nonetheless, there have also been critics of TQM, such as Barnard (BCQ, June 1999), who have indicated that it could not fulfil the quality control needs of contemporary industry, or of fairly unorthodox settings such as the educational environment, and that it would soon wither and die on the proverbial management systems vine.

It will be our position, in the face of this criticism, to demonstrate, through presentation of salient facts and concepts, that TQM is adaptable enough, flexible enough and systemic enough to withstand the pressures of its so-called "opponents", who seem to voice relatively shallow criticism by asserting that it's merely the "flavor of the week," a momentary managerial fad. TQM's characteristics, which will be further explored, are securely, however, designed to ensure its longevity in business circles throughout the industrial world. The nature of this broadly construed but conceptually sophisticated model does represent, in fact, a 'system' in the classic sense of the term. Using the model itself as its own defense, this paper will describe the features of TQM which clearly discourage its (mis) categorization as a fad.

Throughout much of the 1980's, the concept of Total Quality Management was familiar only to professionals in the field of quality control and process engineering. It then encompassed and reflected the most sophisticated and comprehensive systemic implementation of its type and was, in fact, a fledgling, but professional and well-honed managerial concept (Hutton, 1999). Only a decade later, however, TQM had been artificially re-packaged by the 'management fad crowd', and was energetically marketed in low-brow business periodicals and the popular press as the 'latest innovation'. The average reader was convinced that it was merely a superficial and fleeting fashion. This unfortunate misperception was as far from being a truthful portrayal of TQM as possible. It is, in fact, a highly developed and clearly systemic model used successfully, for years, by major and minor industrial concerns everywhere.

TQM, the product of Japanese thinking, British expertise, and three American innovators, displays many archetypal systemic or structural features, but does not, of course, incorporate all of the potentially conflicting principles of competing or complementary managerial systems. It's primary objective is to maintain product excellence through a multi-faceted program of quality-control initiatives and proven procedural techniques (Richbell et al., 1999). The result is on-going continuous improvement with customer satisfaction ranking extremely high on the list of priorities. Because of the breadth and scope of TQM's 'reach' into pre-existing systems and practices, it can not only be perceived as a mere system, but rather as a mega-system with overriding principles to be implemented across-the-board.

It would be foolhardy to suggest that an argument to the effect that TQM is merely a passing fad cannot be made. However, only its detractors, who are fairly few in number and strength, have made this argument often on the basis of an initially poor understanding of TQM's relevance and efficiency. The Japanese pioneers of what has become TQM designed their approach long ago so that it includes many classically systemic characteristics which, among other advantages, ensure that TQM remains 'permanent' in nature (Oakland, 1993).

Emerging from World War II with a less than marginal reputation for quality, Japan's industrialists urgently required a system to guarantee excellence in all phases of operations and production. Their systemic concept of Kaizen Teian (team-based generation of ideas for continuous improvement), not to mention further systemic developments implemented by Shingo and Taguchi, formed the basis of the innovations later perfected and honed by the Americans Deming, Crosby and Juran (Hardesky, 1995). Concurrently, in Britain, internationally accepted theorists, such as Adair, Cooper and Dale, focused on total quality in human resources or on guides to 'process control' employing quality control charts and TQM-predicated analytical techniques. All of this, importantly, was systemic and produced a body of thought which was widely recognized as well beyond the category of a mere fad or of a momentary sensation.

Several permanent and well-defined principles, clearly distinguishing TQM from other systems, can be described as constituting the central core or essence of this model. Of course, the entire concept of TQM cannot be reduced to a few pages or graphs ; however, an elemental notion of its primary purpose and structure can be expressed herein. It is important to keep in mind that TQM's principles are intrinsically 'self-sustaining' as well as conceived to produce quality merchandise or services in a broad spectrum of industrial and manufacturing applications. Several, but not all, of TQM's key concepts, particularly those related to process modification, can be best represented graphically for purposes of conciseness:

TQM Manipulated Inputs ----->Properly Processed----->Result in Quality-Improved Outputs

Source: Adapted and modified from Oakland, J.S., Total Quality Management, Nichols, New Jersey, 1993, 14.


The above figure does not, of course, explain or illustrate actual TQM methodology used for transforming industrial materials or procedures into high-quality products or services. Entire volumes have been devoted to that aspect of this system's definition. But it does demonstrate the ideal end-results of TQM when properly implemented. So, under the circumstances, what might be a working definition of TQM, keeping in mind the self-sustaining systemic nature of this model?

According to Samuel Ho, writing in The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, "TQM provides the overall concept that fosters continuous improvement in an organization. The TQM philosophy stresses a systematic, integrated, consistent organization-wide perspective involving everyone and everything." (Ho, S., I.J.O.A., April 1999) In two sentences, Ho has summed up the underlying concepts and goals of TQM and has also confirmed what the thrust of this paper is intends to demonstrate. By acknowledging the systemic nature of TQM, broad and all encompassing as it may be, Ho has effectively bolstered the argument against those who would consider it a fanciful venture into the realm of the "temporary fix".

Although most theorists would agree with Ho that TQM does not need a separate defense mechanism to protect itself against becoming outmoded in the span of a few months or years, there are, in fact, strategies to deal with further ensuring TQM's survivability. Some firms have encountered various types of difficulties with TQM after a period of several years. Many of them are psychologically induced. Employees, many at mid-managerial levels of authority, need to feel a "breath of fresh air" occasionally and resent the apparent staleness of TQM.

Often these managers will

They also

And they

According to Oakland, under these circumstances, several surveys need to be conducted (1993), namely: surveys of employee commitment, strategy, teamwork and results. If this is accomplished in a timely manner, major break-down of originally TQM-based quality controls can be averted. So, even under this worst case scenario, employees can be channeled back into belief in the systemic nature of TQM and it's effectiveness. Such a system can scarcely be categorized as a passing fad.

Emphasis on including a strategic plan within the framework of TQM may also help ensure its survival within a company. Often a combined approach is considered effective in managerial circles. By injecting a strategic plan into TQM (or, more precisely, the reverse), the quality and profit objectives of the company may be best achieved. Strategic planning provides a sense of direction and purpose, whereas TQM adds the elements of constant improvement, exchange of ideas and quality control in mid-process. By fusing strategic planning methods with TQM, a psychological advantage can also be gained, in addition to the practical results achieved. Indeed, the benefits of a new and often shifting strategic plan are amalgamated with TQM, with the latter benefiting, in the eyes of employees, from the former.

TQM has endured for lengthy periods of time in the least likely settings and under quite hostile circumstances. There have been several unusual settings into which TQM has been introduced. Because of the high index of success this model has enjoyed in industrial and administrative settings, some theorists have thought it might be applied gainfully to the field of education. Excellence and continuous improvement, placing authority in the hands of students to a certain degree, in the classroom was essentially the concept being promoted. As a case in point, Janet Barnard has composed a relatively negative article on the merits of TQM within the university environment (BCQ, June 1999). She details its use in the classroom and points out the rejection of TQM by faculty and many students. She directly refers to this system as ranking among "management fads and fashions" and provides support from Hackman and Wageman (1995), in whose article she seems to imply a mixed or lukewarm analysis is apparently forthcoming. Clearly, it is important to assert that, in order for TQM to survive, it must be utilized in the areas for which it was designed to function effectively, to wit industry, administration, retail business, but perhaps not education. Resistance to TQM should be minimal -- even over a considerable period of time -- when it is properly employed. In this sense, therefore, its categorization is unfair, because the system was never designed for adaptation to the classroom environment where 'autocratic' teacher control is a prime factor in learning.

Understanding TQM is essential to its endurance within a given corporate culture. It will not be rejected as faddishness by those whose appreciation of its finer points is fairly profoundly ingrained. In her article published in Total Quality Management, Suzanne Richfield outlines how TQM was used with some degree of success within a Greek Shipping firm. A wide variety of reactions to the system were registered and many observers rejected TQM, while others lauded it. There were discrepancies in interpretation of TQM policies and procedures and as few as 26% of employees felt that they had been included in the decision-making process. Why did this phenomenon occur? It resided partially in management's sense of change, policy-making and adaptation, resulting in lay-offs (redundancies) within the firm. Management's ability to communicate and its fundamental judgment were found to be flawed. Once these crucial factors, impeding employee understanding, were repaired, however, TQM was viewed with more favor within the firm. So, we can infer from Richbell's article, the fault would not seem to lie with TQM, as such, but rather with its marginal implementation by management at all levels. Communication, adversely impacting employee understanding, in this case, was a major factor in its marginal acceptance, not weakness of the systemic model.

An additional argument in favor of the survivability of TQM can be made by examining the 'continuous improvement' aspect of what has essentially become known as the Juran, Crosby and Deming system (Oakland, 1993, 443-445). Inherent in their model is the concept of constant upgrading, review and inspection of all components or elements in the manufacturing or administrative process. Faddishness is not likely to constitute a major criticism of a system that is so multi-faceted and self-perpetuating. By applying innovative techniques for ensuring constant improvement, TQM can remain varied enough to appeal to the large majority of employees that already embrace it in most industrial settings where it is in use. The continuous improvement concept applies not only to manufacturing processes, of course, but also to the system itself, constantly refreshed.

In order to stave off unjust criticism, emphasis must be placed by all levels of management on the systemic nature of TQM, avoiding the nebulous jargon which often springs up like weeds amongst blossoming roses. Sight must not be lost of a needed sense of on-going commitment and well-directed corporate focus, comprising, in effect, primary elements of any corporate culture. Credibility on the part of management must remain on the surface of things, and leadership, devoted to doing 'what is important', must prevail. Subordinate employees must place trust in leaders, but are also entitled, under TQM, to share in vital processes.

To guard against criticism born of boredom, stagnation, decay or dissatisfaction, upper echelon managers must realize that quality is not finite. In fact, it's a concept which must apply to all functions at all times in a perpetual cycle of monitoring and control. This is pointed out in Oakland and alluded to in Ho and Richbell (April 1999, July 1999). "The only constant is change", Ho states, and the quest for quality must be on-going and continuous, often encouraging change and innovation. With change comes the avoidance or minimization of shallow criticisms such as those referred to in the 'TQM Education' article by Barnard (June 1999).

Further, by constantly varying the angle of approach, managers can extend the acceptance of TQM within their firms (Oakland 1993, passim). This is not to say that it is, one day, doomed ultimately to be replaced by another theoretical concept. TQM, call it what one may, seems -- on the contrary -- destined to ensure excellence in most settings where it has already been introduced, and will remain prominent if properly adjusted, retuned and varied over time. The difference between having TQM and not is almost literally the difference between the consumer-coveted Japanese-designed Lexus of 1999 and the 'chintzy' tin 1948 toy cars once also manufactured in post WW II Japan. However, the key concept here is that through variety of TQM managerial approaches, longevity of in-plant acceptance can be enhanced, ensuring that the proverbial Lexus will continue to be produced at high levels of excellence.

In further defense of those who would stand by TQM, as opposed to those who would label it a fad or fashion, managers must promote three inherently critical priorities of TQM. These priorities consistently revitalize the image of TQM by sheer virtue of their paramount importance:

(1) focusing on the customer, (2) understanding the operational process and (3) strengthening employee commitment to quality. By redesigning training modules and embellishing manuals somewhat, TQM can be made to attract new converts at every turn, keeping these three priorities firmly in mind.

If a managerial system, whether implemented in conjunction with another or not, is properly perceived by employees, their level of comfort with it is also enhanced. Therefore, as implied earlier, if training and communication result in better understanding, comfort will also increase, thus smoothing over otherwise potential rough spots in the 'corporate culture' sought by management.

This proven system will, in fact," live up to the expectations" of management personnel at all levels of an enterprise. Indeed, product quality, along with all of the product's characteristics such as reliability and cost-effectiveness, are closely linked to the principles espoused by TQM. Reliability is a constant which must be maintained if success of the firm is to be ensured; TQM procedures alter the entire corporate culture with a view toward ensuring product reliability and functionality even beyond original design standards, and often beyond the expectations of the consumer. Management is usually pleased with results, and any imperfections in manufacture are quickly dealt with under TQM. Everyone's expectations are fulfilled and satisfaction, on all fronts, is generally, according to much of the literature in this field, virtually ensured.

There should be no need to sugar-coat TQM or to disguise it under false identities. Frequently, as indicated earlier, it can be utilized in tandem with another major system, such as Knowledge Engineering, Soft Systems Methodology, Strategic Planning, or ISO 9000 for best results, depending on the nature of the business firm's activities. TQM has also been proven of use in both the macro and micro spheres of operation. It's adaptability has been confirmed by Philip Crosby, one of the three major North American figures whose work brought TQM into high repute, when he highlights the need "encourage individuals to establish improvement goals for themselves and their groups" (Oakland, 1993, 443). He, and his two well known colleagues Deming and Juran, go on to point out that TQM can be implemented and adapted, as required, to serve, efficiently and steadfastly, the purposes of ensuring customer satisfaction and product excellence in all phases of an industry's production, marketing and sales operations. Such a system, proven and validated over time, can hardly be superficially perceived as a faddish innovation.

Most management theorists recognize that TQM has incorporated a series of built-in safeguards against what we might call self-annihilation. In fact, this system can remain operative, largely because its underlying principles are universally necessary and recognized. Although TQM became a familiar phrase to toss carelessly about in the early 1990s, it has justly re-earned its reputation for thoroughness and virtually universal applicability.

It can be justifiably claimed that TQM, along with so-called more 'formally' recognized organizational paradigms, ranks among the great industrial management innovations of this century.

Although there was some distrust of its scope and intent, TQM has survived many challenges and endured many scathing attacks. Most of these have been brushed aside by statistical evidence, even published in articles such as Barnard's who ultimately admits that, even in the business classroom at the university level, "...TQM can be a positive classroom management style." (June 1999) Not only does TQM focus on qualitative features, but, of course, it relies in large part on data, sometimes gathered even in the fashion of Taylorism. So flexible is this model and so well-received has it been in the eyes of lower echelon employees (whose input is accepted) as well as by higher echelon planners and executives that, according to Oakland and other authors, an entire series of TQM-based management awards, such as the Malcolm Baldrige Award, have been established to promote its use, judged on specific criteria, and its overall continuous improvement philosophy.

Lastly, it is fitting to reiterate that expectations of managers have been consistently met by this systemic approach. Misperceptions of TQM, as suggested by Hutton (1999) and others, were related to a short-lived media blitz which misrepresented TQM as a pedestrian approach to solution of common office problems. It is somewhat ironic that this model has rebounded so convincingly in professional circles and that the formal academic literature devoted to TQM has been consistently positive in recent years. What flaws may be found in this system are resolved, in short order, by the very nature of its approach which, whether applied internally or externally, has proven to be invariably effective.

The arguments presented above serve to demonstrate the survivability of TQM as a meaningful and popular management model, capable of surpassing, well into the next millennium, the expectations of many of industry's most demanding executives and systems analysts.


Barnard, J. "Using Total Quality Principles in Business Courses: The Effect on Student Evaluations", Business Communication Quarterly, June 1999, 61-73.

Hackman, J.R. and Wageman, R. 1995 "Total Quality Management: Empirical, Conceptual and Practical Issues", Administrative Science Quarterly, 40 (2), 309-342.

Hardesky, J., TQM Handbook, McGraw-Hill, New York, N.Y., 1995.

Ho, S.K.M, "TQM and Organizational Change", International Journal of Organizational Analysis, April 1999.

Hutton, D. "Understanding and Implementing a TQM Approach", David Hutton and Associates, Ottawa, Canada, 1999.

Oakland, J.S., Total Quality Management, Second Edition, Nichols Publishing, New Jersey, 1993.

Richbell, S. and Ratsiatou, I. "Establishing a Shared Vision Under Total Quality Management: Theory and Practice", Total Quality Management, July 1999, S648-S689.