Confessions of a Quality Manager  

Being the adventures of four jet-setting quality consultants who like to talk shop even more than they like good food and drink.

This is fantasy consulting. For the real thing, go to Fell Services' Quality pages.

Horace and I were feeling maudlin: we'd met in London and were suffering from our typical overdoses: him of sushi, me of sake. We weren't tacky enough to cling to each other and sing "will you still need me ... when I'm 64", but we were talking about age and what on earth we'd do when we were - well - a bit older. We weren't quite sure how we thought of people who die of rodeo accidents at 65. Are they idiots for getting on a horse at all, or are they heroes for keeping going and not degenerating into slobbering idiots who watch the world go by? I guess the only idiotic thing about Baldrige is that he died in a rodeo accident: after all, he'd had plenty of experience from boyhood onwards (that's what comes of having been born in Omaha).

"Too many accountants, lawyers and marketing people" pronounced Horace, quoting Baldrige, and forgetting, in his nostalgia, that he was one of the above "What we need are some manufacturers and engineers calling the shots if America is to compete effectively in world markets". That's the whole thrust of the Baldrige Award: competitive advantage for America. Or, at least, that's how it started out, it's getting a little diluted now.

Baldrige had worked his way up a Connecticut iron company - I don't know which one - starting as iron hand, culminating in a different sort of iron hand, as president of the corporation. I don't mean to imply that he started right at the bottom of the heap, since he'd been an infantry captain in WWII and he'd also managed to get a bachelor's degree from Yale in 1944, which in itself either means that my sources are a bit confused, or he was an expert, even then, at multitasking. When he took over Scovill, Inc, in 1962, it was just another brass mill, perhaps on the downward slope, but weren't most brass mills at that time? He diversified the products and by the time he went into politics in 1980, it was a desirable and successful firm.

My concern about the Baldrige Award is that, although it encourages the sharing of best practice and continuous improvement, the aim is simply increased competitive advantage. When Eastman Chemical Company won, Ernest Devonport, then chairman, said "We did it [go for the Baldrige Award] to win customers ... and to remain competitive in a world marketplace". Now, my preference is more for EFQM - ok, it's European based, as am I, but it's a more moral award, it considers how a firm can help the environment and its own people. The Baldrige Award just goes for the jugular: sure, one of its criteria is the human resource focus, how the organisation enables its workforce to develop its full potential and how the workforce is aligned with the organisation's objectives, but it just seems that employees, in the Baldrige universe, are resources to be utilised purely for the good of the company, whereas with EFQM, there is at least the illusion that people are people with feelings and free will and desires to do more than increase the corporate profit.

However, having said that, Horace suggested that the Baldrige Award may be getting a bit touchy-feely as well, and not because people consistently mis-spell it as "Baldridge". Since inception in 1987, there has always been a category for small businesses, and in 1999 sections were introduced for health care and education. in 2001, for example, one of the winners was the Chugach School District. No, I hadn't heard of Chugach either. It's 22,000 square miles worth of Alaskan wilderness, with 214 students. When superintendent Richard DeLorenzo arrived in 1994, he must have despaired: the average student (we're talking mean average here, not that it matters) was about 3 years behind grade level in reading, unemployment in the area was - and still is - 50%+. I have absolutely no idea why DeLorenzo decided to apply Baldrige principles to this district. He simply says he talked to the parents, local businesses and students (as customers) to identify what they wanted, and then redesigned the system to achieve the desired results. If people don't pass the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam until 21, ok. If they pass at 14, that's ok too. Sounds simple. Mind, providing a laptop to every student may have helped as well (another source notes that students have to get midway to graduation to get the wireless laptop - perhaps that makes more sense as a form of motivation).

Now, even though it's the first restaurant (I think) to win the Baldrige Award in any category, Pal's Sudden Service is a more easily understood winner. Horace had eaten at one of the branches in Tennessee, and raved for several minutes about the chipped ham, the breakfast biscuits with country ham, and the gravy. He then looked, disparagingly, at his last maki sushi and stabbed a chopstick right into its core, to convey it all the quicker from plate to mouth. Pal's is still privately owned, and everything (and I mean everything) has a process attached to it. More, every process is designed to impect on and improve customer satisfaction. It's cheap, it's cheerful and it's reliable (says Horace). What I liked about Pal's is that every owner or operator spends part of the day on what I'd call "walking the talk". They call it "marketing by wandering around". Perhaps it's more focused, it involves talking to people on what they think of the store and any ways things can be improved. They don't just wander round the parking lot, but actually go door to door in areas up to 3 miles away from their home base. Actually, that sounds a bit weird to me. It's bad enough answering the door to find a Jehovah's Witness wanting to save you, but, frankly, I can't really imagine a Macdonald's or Burger King employee wanting to know what I thought of the meal. (Side note: have just tried out the idea on flatmate who says initially he would be apprehensive, then might either be pleased or deliberately difficult, just to annoy. Well, I guess using a sample of two doesn't express British opinion accurately, but even so ...).

When the Award started in 1987, the early winners were the usual suspects - Motorola, Solectron, AT&T, Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Texas Instruments, Xerox. But now, with costs from as little as $300, depending on the size and philosophy of the company, small businesses are seeing the benefits of having expert assessment which includes a report of their strengths and areas for improvement. Although the initial aim was simply to go for patriotic competitiveness, I think that the Baldrige influence is spreading more into becoming embedded into normal corporate culture and, while Baldrige recipients must have US headquarters, the influence can still disseminate downwards and sideways into subsidiary and partner companies.

Of course, Horace and I still haven't made up our minds about Baldrige and the rodeo. The one thing we are agree on, though, is that we'd rather be on the horse than watching it all on tv as we sit in our bathchairs with tartan rugs. When we go, it's going to be in a blaze of glory - that is, if we have any choice about it at all.

  posted by Dovya R @ 8:19 PM : discuss

Tuesday, March 26, 2002  
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