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Where are all the Total Quality Management managers?

December 10, 1997

Where are all the Total Quality Management managers?

Why is it that the people with their four-wheel drive sport utility vehicles are always the ones who drive 20 miles an hour when it snows? Shows you can take the geek out of the station wagon, but you can't take the station wagon out of the geek.

And I hate the way you have to stir up the fruit in yogurt. Why doesn't Dannon just put the lids on the bottom?

What? Oh, sorry. You can tell the holidays are nearing because I grow increasingly grumpy.

There is one thing I'm not grumpy about, but I'm rather ashamed of it. I know I shouldn't, I know it's wrong, but boy am I enjoying witnessing the demise of the Pacific Rim economy. The Economist last week printed a big feature on how the Rim went over the edge.

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I can't help it. No matter how much I realize that I must root for a global village and that what happens in Asia potentially affects our stock market and potentially affects my retirement account - well, let me just say that in my old age I'll happily trade in canned tuna night for rice and beans night to support my now, for-the-moment glee.

The reason I'm so giddy can be summed up in three words: Total Quality Management.

Yes, could it be just five short years ago we were all absorbed in the Japanese way of doing business? Plenty of consultants got rich "teaching" us dumb A'muricans that we should all be more like our disciplined, efficient, workaholic brethren in the Far East.

Oh yeah? Well where is Edwards Demming now? On a slab, that's where, along with all his brilliant "give the workers a committee assignment instead of giving them a raise" ideas.

Synergy? Hah.

Empowerment? Phooey.

Feng Shui? Sure. Put the trash can over there.

I recently thumbed through a book by a former chief of ITT, who basically said the same thing. Synergy, he said, was a meaningless word managers threw around when they were out of real ideas.

He also said the best job in the world to have is that of a newspaper columnist because they sit around all day getting ideas from other people and not doing any real work of their own. Personally, I resent this old goat saying that newspaper columnists get all their ideas from others.

So anyway, like he was saying in his book, corporate buildings across America are filled with the empty offices of former total quality management managers - people who basically said "we don't need all these middle managers." To which their bosses replied, "You are right" and fired them on the spot.

It was the only good idea they ever had.

All the rest of the committee-forming mumbo jumbo led workers to feel involved, and to produce more, and to be part of the company's decision-making structure.

And in exchange for all this added production and new responsibility, employees were richly compensated with certificates and nice plaques and an annual company picnic with balloons for the kids.

There was no money in it, but employees had the satisfaction of knowing the power to stop the line right there on the shop floor was theirs.

I'm not criticizing the Japanese notion of industriusness, but sleeping in the office and taking lunch 20 to a hot tub has never been my idea of a good time.

And for what?

But I shouldn't laugh. I know all too well the American culture's love of a fad, and if we aren't copying the Japanese we will be copying someone else.

There will be posters in corporate halls: "Do things the Argentinian way" and "Todos los Qualititos" and every worker in the United States will be encouraged to take two-hour, afternoon naps.

Naps? This could be one trend I'm up for.

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