Whatever Happened to Total Quality Management?

Heralded as an innovation that improved private sector companies, TQM swept across the educational landscape beginning in the late 1980s as a way of improving school performance.

Where Did the Idea Originate? In post-World War II Japan then occupied by the U.S until 1952, Japanese business leaders eager to reconstruct their economy turned to an American thought leader to think through and help the nation’s companies attain quality in production and distribution. They invited W. Edwards Deming and colleagues to rebuild their consumer and export economy to gain a niche in global markets that they lost at the end of World War II.

Using Demings’ ideas to achieve quality products in reconstructing the economy, company executives and employees began seeing the corporate system within which they worked as interlocking components that have to change as a whole rather than one-at-a-time or piecemeal to make products that could be sold worldwide. In time, the Japanese economy morphed into an electronic and automobile juggernaut by the 1980s.

By then, U.S. business leaders feeling the economic loss to Japan’s growing role in the global economy examined closely how Japanese firms had moved from a producer of shoddy goods to high quality products that sold internationally far better than U.S. goods. In no time at all, the name Deming became associated with the turnaround of the Japanese economy and “quality” became the watchword in both Asia (think South Korea and Japan) and the U.S.

Total Quality Management became the mantra that corporate leaders repeated endlessly. New programs anchored in the principles that Deming had articulated for the Japanese spread through U.S. companies as the guiding wisdom for corporate leaders.  (see here, here, and here)

What is TQM?

Basically, TQM is a company-wide process initiated and sustained by top managers for everyone in the company working together to make a better product. Continuous assessment and self-evaluation on the part of all employees working collaboratively is essential to the process.

Sometimes called “pillars” of TQM, four basic principles guide the innovation. In a series of slides, the author listed these principles:





What Problem Did TQM Intend to Solve?

With the release of A Nation at Risk report (1983),  ever-rising criticism of U.S. students falling seriously behind students in economic competitors as evidenced by international test scores, local, state, and federal reforms spilled over the nation’s schools in the 1980s and early 1990s. Top leaders sought to apply TQM to the entire school system to engage all staff, both certified and non-certified to improve student learning and increase parent satisfaction, i.e., the customers.

Popular in the business community as a way of re-taking markets that foreign competitors had seized, educational policymakers saw this business innovation as a process applicable to solving the national problem of low student test scores on international tests and big city schools filled with poor and minority children and youth. Improved academic achievement would produce graduates who could enter the workplace with skills and knowledge that would lead to stronger economic productivity. Better schools, stronger economy. Problem solved.

Does TQM Work?

If by work, one means that TQM caused student test scores and parent satisfaction to rise, the answer is no. Although there are a few research studies that do show improvements in school districts and schools that researchers attributed to TQM (see here and here), in most instances, TQM was seldom implemented fully throughout school systems that adopted the process. Partial implementation of an innovation nearly guarantees that the outcomes of such efforts will be blurry if not inconsequential (see  here).

What Happened To TQM?

Basically, the phrase has disappeared in the swamp where educational innovations go to die and get buried. I did an Ngram of Total Quality Management to get a sense of how many mentions of the phrase appear in the literature. There a steep rise in the 1980s and a sharp drop beginning in the late-1990s. What kept that sharp drop from going even further down was the initiation of the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award in 1987 given to initially businesses and then schools. There is overlap between TQM and the Baldridge Award–see Ngram for Award–in that they are both aimed at increasing quality of product and use a systemic process to achieve that process. Because the Award is a federal law with Congressional appropriations and is administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce, it survives to this day. Not so for TQM.

Partial and selected implementation of aspects of TQM not only made evaluation of results hard but often led to confusion over what had to be done. Thus, there was varied implementation of a poorly defined innovation.

Because TQM was a systemic initiative involving many parts of the organization, be it a school or district and because the concept and its design meant different things to different people, TQM had many moving parts, some of which were considered crucial and others less so. District and school leaders determined to put TQM into practice often selected certain pieces of the design and not others. Such random and partial implementation of the concept, as in many other instances of putting innovations into practice, preceded demise.






Filed under school reform policies

9 responses to “Whatever Happened to Total Quality Management?

  1. David Quattrone

    I read this piece on TQM with interest . . and nostalgia. As a superintendent of schools in the 1990s I rolled my eyes at the condescending pronouncements of the Business Roundtable that viewed students as products and called for uniform outcomes. But the Baldrige Award provided an alternate place to stand by instead viewing students as customers, with active interests and needs of their own. In my district (Indian HIll, Ohio) we used the Baldrige framework as an improvement tool, applying for the award several times. We never won, but we kept at it, and I believe our district made some progress toward a culture of continuous improvement and systematic implementation. (I came to serve the Baldrige program as an examiner and, eventually, as a member of the Panel of Judges.)

    When I moved to a new district (Bronxville, NY) in 2005, I was pleased to encounter an adaptation of the Baldrige framework that translated these same concepts to the language of schools. The Tri-State Consortium, a coalition of forty-two schools in NY, NJ, and CT, uses the same Baldrige categories of approach-deployment-results to analyze degrees of implementation, but the assessment model uses terms more familiar to students, parents, and teachers. The consortium uses a critical friends process to develop district capacity for high performance.

    Other descendants of TQM are also alive and well. See, for example, Harvard’s Public Education Leadership Project and its coherence framework and the datawise collaborative improvement process. These models preserve and extend the key concepts of systems thinking and fact-based analysis. These models have evolved beyond standard achievement measures as the imperial indicator of quality, and offer an encouraging counter narrative to narrow, more simplistic views of accountability, assessment, and teacher evaluation

  2. Pingback: Data, Quality and Innovation « Light Offerings

  3. sara

    i need to ask question what the relationship between TQM and competitive advantages???
    thank you for your information

    • larrycuban

      To the degree that I understand “competitive advantage”, Sara, TQM–well done and thoroughly spread through the organization–could give a company an edge against competitors.

  4. arturmydlarz

    I really love this post. I would like to write simillar post on my blog in polish, to increase awareness in Poland of TQM. Can I do it ?

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