After 20 Years TQM Still Fashionable For IT

By David Haskin

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Jay DeNovo acknowledges while total quality management (TQM) was, as he puts it, "a business fad" in the 1980s, that doesn't stop him from applying the principals of TQM to enterprise IT projects.

"There's not much TQM going on any more," said DeNovo, who is CIO of Home Savings Bank in Madison, Wis. "People found out how hard it was to do. But I never viewed it as a fad. I view it as a way of life."

DeNovo says most strategic IT projects he is in charge of follow TQM guidelines and the results are typically gratifying. For example, using TQM principals in a recently completed a help desk project netted his department more time for other things good for the business.

"Before, we were a 3.0 full-time equivalent (FTE) shop and IT was all we did," he said. "After the project, we were a 2.5 FTE shop and we are now facilities managers and we have some compliance responsibilities."

While DeNovo, who studied quality management in graduate school, admits that TQM is not widely embraced anymore, he and other CIOs agreed many of its principals have infiltrated the thinking of technology executives.

Built Into Projects

Ben Gaucherin, CTO for Sapient, a business and technology consultancy, said he is a big believer in Six Sigma, which is a statistical approach used by TQM advocates to reduce the error rate of specific processes. While Six Sigma initially was a tool for manufacturing, it is very applicable to IT projects."The idea is to step back, get a cross section of people involved and get them to improve (the process) with the goal of reducing errors," Gaucherin said. "We've used (Six Sigma) with a number of our clients."

However, Gaucherin agreed with DeNovo TQM isn't popular, largely because some people find it too complicated. "Somehow (Six Sigma) turned into rocket science ... ," he said. "People only have so much patience."

Jim Harding, CIO of Henry Schein, a healthcare services distributor, said that, while his organization doesn't take a formalized TQM approach, like Sapient, it infiltrates much of what his IT shop does.

"Quality is a major mainstay of our team here. It's a priority," Harding said. "But I wouldn't call it TQM per se." Harding and his managers make sure processes are in place to improve quality and work hard at creating what he calls "a quality mindset."

"We're trying to make it part of our culture," he said. "Quality is one of our main deliverables day in, day out."

DeNovo takes a more formal approach to TQM explaining that, in simple terms, TQM uses variants of a seven-step problem solving methodology.

"You use data to work upstream to find the sources of problems," he explained.

Culture Clash

For instance, a while back, DeNovo said it became apparent his department was spending too much time fixing problems instead of preventing them. So he used a TQM stand-by, the checklist, to gather data.

"Every time we got a helpdesk call, we made a check on a checklist," he said. "Every month, we'd look at the top ten types of help desk calls. First, we got really good at fixing them, then we started trying to prevent them. By constantly going after the few problems that created a lot of calls, we eventually got to the virtuous side of the 80/20 rule."

He was referring to the familiar rule, called the Pareto Principal, stating that 80% of problems come from 20% of causes. But, in some enterprises, this approach will cause culture conflicts.

"We did a check on both the personal environment and the corporate culture," he said. "We asked individuals (in the IT shop): 'Do you get satisfaction from fixing problems or preventing them?' Not everybody can make that transition.

"From the corporate culture point of view, we had to honestly answer: Do we reward people who solve problems or prevent problems? If your company rewards system focuses on fixing, you'll do a lot of fixing. What incentive is there to prevent problems?"

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