Build or burn?

Total Quality

‘Get in. Get it done. Get it done right. Get out.’  – The business philosophy of Fred C. Trump.

When I was an undergraduate in the mid-eighties, the management studies were dominated by the ‘Japanese Miracle’.  It seems surprising now, after the Japanese asset bubble crash of 1990 and the subsequent lost decade but in the decade before this calamity there was a sense that western industrial techniques had fallen significantly behind and we had a lot to learn from Japanese competitors.

The thing we had most to learn was product quality.  If you lived through the 1970’s, you know what I mean.  Nothing electronic worked for very long.  Cars rusted away.  Engines wouldn’t start.  Calling out an engineer to repair a household appliance was a regular occurrence.  They don’t make them like they used to?  Thank God.

Studying Japanese manufacturing techniques meant learning about ‘Just in time’ management as an alternative to holding and managing large inventories.  We learned about multi-functional manufacturing teams where even the lowliest machine operator had the authority to stop a whole production line to sort out a production problem immediately.    And we were taught about ‘kaizen’, the Japanese approach to making continuous small improvements.  I don’t recall it being given a name at the time but it came to be called a ‘Total Quality’ approach to manufacturing.

Since those days, a perfectly sensible and necessary policy of focussing on quality in manufacturing developed into a focus on the quality of all business processes and from there got thoroughly lost in a sea of box ticking, quality assured, fully accredited admin and silly names.  This culminates in the nonsense of six sigma black belts which was brilliantly lampooned by the comedy ’30 Rock’ when they described the core values of the six sigmas as: Teamwork, Insight, Brutality, Male enhancement, Hand-Shakefulness, and Play-hard.

Leaving all that fun aside, the quote at the top from Donald Trump’s dad sums up the philosophy behind Total Quality.  The parenthesis is mine.  ‘Get it done right’.   It’s as simple as that, and as difficult.  Getting it right first time, with zero errors or defaults, sums up the attention to detail necessary to achieve ‘quality’ and ‘total’ refers to all aspects of an organisation, not just the manufacturing, and emphasises how some small process carried out by a relatively junior worker might actually be key to the success of the whole organisation.  It’s a good philosophy.  One I aspire to, no matter what I’m doing.  But don’t always achieve.

The worst industry I’ve ever come across in terms of attitude to quality is construction.  Construction projects seem to operate on the following philosophy: ‘Get in.  Get it wrong.  Put it right.  Move on.  Get called back.’ This one step back for every two steps forward approach, leads to huge bust ups, delays and extra cost.  Where were the construction industry leaders of today during the 1980s?

Even while I was studying the Japanese approach to Total Quality, it seemed that there was a missing piece to the puzzle.  Even if we copied all the techniques of the Japanese, you felt we wouldn’t be able to replicate their level of quality or productivity, at least in the UK.  It seemed that the Japanese workers were treated with much more respect in these factories than we treat our workforce in the UK.  The whole relationship between management and managed was different.  And that’s the key to Total Quality:  getting management and workers on the same page.

If you want to know why construction has such poor quality, the reason is not difficult to find.  They employ lazy, careless people, supervise them poorly, and lead them badly.   The precise opposite of Total Quality.

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