Total Quality Management: 20 Years Later

110By Dr. Alice Waagen
Founder and President

The 1990’s love affair with Total Quality Management (TQM) empowered work teams, process improvement, and other business buzzwords killed the professional manager.

Organizations flattened themselves, removing layers of managers, while distributing their responsibilities to key individual contributors.

This new breed of manager retained its full individual contributor duties while picking up the job of overseeing the work of staff. This concept of “working managers” permeates organizations today and has resulted, in my humble opinion, in a poorly run, overly stressed mess.

Nearly two decades later, we are still reaping the fruits of this flawed logic.

In most organizations, managers have a full plate of their own work to produce, while overseeing the work and assignments of staff.

And how does this really work? It is quite simple: The performance plans which guide a manager’s personal allocation of time and attention are chock full of his or her individual goals with scant mention of the management responsibilities.

These responsibilities, such as coaching, motivating, and assessing staff, simply drop off the plate. The manager’s function has shrunken to little more than occasional ad hoc conversations supplemented with a myriad of poorly written emails and a very painful event called the year end appraisal. (More on performance appraisals in my August newsletter.)

But here is the irony of it all.

Organizations have achieved little true cost savings by killing the middle manager.

Why? The work being done by the professional manager has not gone away. People still need direction and correction to successfully complete work assignments. Without this guidance, work is completed with errors and needs rework.

In my scan of organizations, I see lots of people working hard and putting in long hours. But the efficiency of this work is abysmal. My colleagues in Human Resources mostly pick up the slack when managers fail to manage. HR folks spend endless hours mediating disputes, coaching performance short falls, and calming down irate employees who clearly don’t know what’s expected of them.

What’s the result?

Managers aren’t managing, HR serves as de facto managers, and what happens to the HR work?

It gets delayed, causing more employee problems. It is enough to give anyone a headache.

I strongly encourage organizational leaders to rethink the concept of the flat organization and reinstate the profession of management.

Here are some simple steps that can push organizations closer to a better balance of management and work:

  • First, take a handful of your best and brightest managers and, over time, reduce their individual contributor goals to 50% or less of their current workload. At the same time, increase their number of direct reports by one or two positions to handle their individual assignments.
  • Second, augment managers’ individual performance plans with solid and detailed performance objectives that recognize and reward fundamental management skills. People are conditioned to focus on the goals in the plan. If there is no goal around management practices, time and attention will be focused on work goals.
  • Third, provide managers with many opportunities to develop and enrich their skills as managers. Since they’ve never been held accountable for truly managing, they probably do not know the fundamentals of how to allocate work, provide feedback, coach and correct.

I vote that we revive the long dead professional manager and use this valuable resource to create workplaces that are effective and efficient, as well as healthier and happier places to work.