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Going the Extra Mile, or Taking a World Cruise: Did TQM Turn Perfectionism into a Virtue?

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cruise-around-worldFollowing the Second World War, the allies determined that if the enemy nations were going to be able to make meaningful contribution the world’s economies, then they would have to receive some assistance in rebuilding their manufacturing infrastructure.

A particular challenge was to get the Japanese up to a point where they could actually compete in the international markets.

In 1950, W. Edwards Deming was brought in by General McArthur to help that island nation raise the standards. It was to be a turning point that would be felt in the latter part of the 20th century.

The label “Made in Japan” was the butt of manufacturing jokes for many years, but in the 1980s, American automobile manufacturers were forced to build smaller cars in order to compete with the Japanese imports.

Thus began the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement. In principle, TQM had the right idea. Reduce defects to the absolute smallest extent possible, and avoid costly lawsuits, recalls, and peeved customers.

The problems however began when this rigid system was applied to people.

The DoD decided that everything should be done right the first time. That presupposed that there was only one right way (think Frederick Taylor), and that someone knew what it was. And that ruled out the possibility of any discussion that might lead to improvement.

But more than that, it made perfectionism into a virtue.

It was TQM at a personal level. And no one questioned whether or not total quality in anything was attainable, or even a good use of resources.

As you know, Pareto’s 80/20 principle states that 80% of output comes from 20% of input. And that means that 80% of the quality of anything also comes from 20% of the total effort that’s available to produce it. The remaining 80% of effort is then devoted to just one-fifth of the available quality. In other words, the law of Diminishing Returns kicks in very early in the game.

Perfectionists suffer from the same problem. Comparatively, it takes very little effort to accomplish a great deal. But then these people lose sight of the goal, and instead get lost in the minutiae. This can reduce the time to market on new products and services, but it can also mean that they are working towards a level of quality that doesn’t matter.

Herbert A. Simon, the Nobel-winning economist created a term for how managers cope with decision-making. He called it satisficing, a combination of “satisfying” and “sufficing.” To satisfy means to do a good job. To suffice means to do it good enough.

Perfectionists strive to exceed them both. Organizations need to be cognizant of the fact that it’s impossible to eliminate all error for the simple reason that all defects cannot be known.

Not only that, but by continuing to strive for perfection, they stifle innovation. That’s because so much of it depends on trial . . . and error.

One way that companies can discourage perfectionism in its people and encourage improvement is to eradicate any and all micro-management. This can be done by giving workers greater authority.

The more often they have to ask for permission, the more closely their work will be scrutinized. And the more often their work is evaluated, the more frequently they’ll be inclined to avoid making decisions. The one will automatically promote the other.

But it’s not enough to delegate authority and reduce close supervision. Managers who insist on practicing it need to be re-educated as well, and those who are unwilling to change should be moved into positions where their skills can be used without slowing down the progress of the organization.

Few companies want to foist a shoddy product or service onto their customers. But a balance must be found between making either of them glisten with perfection and getting them into the hands of customers who need them right now.

Your customers appreciate it when you go the extra mile for them. But there’s no reason for you to make a world cruise out of it.

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Jesse Jacoby
The Editor of Emergent Journal and founder of Emergent, Jesse is a recognized expert in business transformation. He and his team partner with Fortune 500 and mid-market companies to deliver successful people and change strategies. Jesse is the creator of the Accelerating Change & Transformation (ACT) model and developer of Change Accelerator and Savvy Transition. Contact Jesse at 303-883-5941 or jesse@emergentconsultants.com.

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