The Meaning of “Total” in Japanese Improvement Programs

As Armand Feigenbaum originally formulated Total Quality Control (TQC) in 1951, it meant quality control from product design to after-sales service. It had to do with the scope of the activity, not with who participates. In 1984, when Kaoru Ishikawa described the Japanese version of TQC, “Total” had come to mean “company-wide” (全社的,  zenshateki). Sometimes, it is even explicitly stated to mean “with participation by everyone” (全員参加, zenyinsanka).

It can be argued that the Japanese side mistranslated “Total,” but it makes no difference. If we want to understand TQC or TPM, we need to go by what they mean by it and realize its implications. “Participation by everyone,” in particular, means the following:

  1. The CEO and the janitor both participate. Personal involvement by top management is essential because it prevents anybody else claiming they are too busy.
  2. Training in the activity must cascade down from top management through all the layers in all the departments.
  3. There must be sanctions for refusal to participate.

As a consequence, the “Total” programs are difficult and expensive to implement. Before starting one, you must be sure that:

  1. It is worth it.
  2. The workforce has the needed skills.
  3.  Management relations are conducive to success.

Otherwise, it most often fizzles out after a flurry of initial activity. In the worst case, it leads to a mutiny. When starting improvement in a manufacturing plant, the prerequisites for any kind of “Total” program are rarely met. It is safer to start a with activities involving local, small teams of volunteers, whose success motivates others to join in. This gradually strengthens the organization to the point where it is able to pull through a program that requires participation by everyone.