Some 30 years ago I was selected to join an elite team whose task was to introduce Total Quality Management to the Lipton Canada organization. This initiative was spearheaded in Lipton by our president Jim Benson – a truly great man, worthy of our respect. I made the mistake of telling him that his support would be critical for the success of LTQ (that was what we called it.) His response was to nominate me for the team.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a better group of people – ever. They came from all regions of Canada and many different branches of the company. We worked as teams of two – my partner Del Tupaz later went on to head up Coca-Cola in Nigeria. Quite a guy.
LTQ or TQM was a popular 80s and early 90s program. It primarily focused on the customer and how to meet that person’s requirements – at the lowest cost and getting everyone in the company involved. It stressed the fact that we all have customers. Some of the customers might be within the organization, but we had to do our best to meet their needs.
Other important facets in TQM or LTQ included:
- working to prevent errors and defects, not detect them later
- plan, do, check, and act cycles
- make decisions based on facts (we provided some basic paper and pencil tools to do this, as computers were not on everyone’s desk back then)
- strive for continuous improvement
We had a series of 8 talks that were given to everyone in Lipton, beginning with management and staff and later on to the factory employees.
Well, we had great fun designing and delivering the talks. I still believe in the principles. But did it work?
Sadly no. There was a fail because we could never convince the rank and file that the upper management would “get it” or buy-in. I believe Jim Benson did, but he was transferred to the US before the program ended.
Then a new program emerged called “re-engineering” or as we preferred to call it “salami slicing.” This initiative was basically improving shareholder value above all – cost-cutting, robotics, process simplification, outsourcing, automation. That was the story of the 90s and it killed a lot of the LTQ philosophy on how people made a difference.
Even the Lipton organization as we knew it disappeared into the Unilever company.
In addition, the ISO standard programs came out in the 90s and these provided a certification important in trade and commerce. A lot of focus was diverted to ISO rather than the fuzzier LTQ.
I still have Facebook friends who were on the original LTQ team, although many of them have hung up the uniform as I did. I also have the LTQ manual and materials in the basement somewhere, and there are times when I wonder if we could have done more to make it stick.
I hate to admit it, but many of my skeptical colleagues were right. A great idea tuned out to be just another flavor of the month. Pity.