Case Study: Adopting a Deming Management System in a Service Company

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By John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog.

Total Quality Management in Logistics: a case study from the trucking industry by Harry Lehman, Jr. (a thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School). The thesis aims to

study the practical aspects of implementing a W. Edwards Deming-based quality program within a particular trucking company, Mason Transporters

I am thankful the Navy makes such documents available online. This document explores implementing these ideas in the service industry. Decades later we still hear people questioning if the ideas work outside manufacturing, which is sad.

Roadway established these goals for its quality teams: improve organizational productivity, improve employee satisfaction, develop employee capabilities through leadership and training, and improve communication by reducing frustration and conflicts.

I like that 2 of these focus directly on helping employees and seeing happier employees as a key to success. As with any stated aim or goal what matters is how it manifests in real decisions but it is a good start to acknowledge how important that is to a successful management improvement effort. And such an aim is required for any Deming based effort.

That culture can be seen further in

Quality training for warehouse workers extends well beyond lapel pins and pep talks. It includes training with pareto charts, fishboning, histograms and distribution of Corrective Action forms that encourage cause-and-effect reasoning, detailed explanation and precise communication. “We’re trying to break the old stigma where workers are paid for their strong backs, not their minds”

Once again this idea is commonly voiced. It is less commonly an active part of the management culture to train, nurture and value all the minds in the organization.

There are certainly limits to any case study but as long as you read with a critical mind you can learn from what others have tried. Actually improving management of an organization is much harder than talking about doing so. The case study details problems encountered by the company and those are very common: resistance to change (by everyone including executives) etc..

Mason’s inability (or unwillingness) to decentralize and drive decision-making authority down to lower levels of the organization was probably a key factor in stagnation of the TQM effort at the operating level of the company.

This idea (and the larger issue of really changing the management culture to invest in growing the capabilities of staff and changing management systems to support making decisions as close to the customer and issue at hand as possible) continues to be a very common problem of management improvement efforts in general and those seeking to use Deming’s ideas in particular. Still today, many executives want the benefits of a fully engaged and thinking workforce but they don’t want to change the management system that in so many ways stifles creativity and innovation and seeking joy in work by all staff.

One issue you hear much less today is “we spent so much effort training everyone that we ran out of steam.” Today it is not common to try and train everyone right away. Instead things are allowed to slowly expand (and you just accept that yes the organization as a system will suffer when not everyone has a shared appreciation for the importance of many management concepts). But that weakness is generally seen as more acceptable than putting so much effort into training at first.

If there is one big trend I have seen change over the decades it is that decades ago things started with a huge flurry and then petered out. Now it is much more common to build slowly and gather momentum. I do strongly feel the second strategy is best (even though it has problems also).

A second long term trend I see is that the use of quality tools has decreased, especially as part of a concerted management improvement effort. Some quality tools have seeped into general management practice and that is a wonderful trend. But I do believe effort to adopt Deming’s ideas in the last couple of decades downplay the importance of tools far too much (I have mentioned before that I believe David Langford is someone who has resisted this trend).

Related: Transforming the Management System of an Organization – Transforming a Management System – A Case Study From the Madison Wisconsin Police DepartmentSilos to Systems: Presentation by Lisa Snyder

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