April 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA3

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TQM in Extension's Crystal Ball

This article explains Total Quality Management (TQM) and makes a case for its adoption by Extension. The history of TQM and its major components are discussed, and a future TQM-Extension scenario is depicted. Potential public sector pitfalls are addressed. Why Extension is particularly suited for TQM is also addressed.

Thomas F. Patterson, Jr.
Extension Associate Professor
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont
Internet: tpatters@moose.uvm.edu


The Total Quality Management (TQM) specter has appeared out of the haze in Extension's crystal ball. Born in Japan of American statisticians who helped rebuild Japanese industry after World War II, TQM transformed cheap and unreliable products labeled "made in Japan" into goods that are now internationally known for their high-quality, reliability, and innovation. The TQM paradigm has spread to other industrialized countries around the world, forced to study and adopt the Japanese way as a desperate means to compete in the world marketplace.

While TQM has made tremendous inroads in the United States business sector in the last ten years, it has only recently begun to seep into the service industry, education, and government. Many banks, brokerage houses and insurance companies have undergone quiet "quality" revolutions. They have succeeded in increasing productivity and raising the quality of products and services without hiring more people or spending more money. Today higher education also is experimenting with TQM (Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Dakota, Oregon State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin are major universities currently implementing TQM) (Chaffee & Sheer, 1992), and a recent GAO survey reports that a majority of Federal agencies are in the early stages of developing TQM programs (Hamilton, Mendelowitz & Fogel, 1991, 1992).


Total Quality Management resists simple definition for a number of reasons. It is an elusive process rather than a tangible product. It reflects an organization's unique mission, history, and culture, and, therefore, is different for each organization--what works for one organization may fail miserably at another. It involves changing the organizational culture to a long term, never-ending commitment--a race without a finish line--to process improvement (Schmidt & Finnegan, 1992).

Despite TQM's slippery disposition, there are basic tenets of TQM that many would agree upon. Among them:

  • First and foremost, the customer is the ultimate determiner of quality.

  • Preventing variability is the key to producing high quality.

  • Quality results from people working within systems.

  • Quality requires continuous improvement of inputs and processes (Swiss, 1992).


Customers are the primary focus of a TQM organization. All employees have external (clientele) and internal (fellow workers) customers, defined as "anyone who depends upon your work." Quality is defined as performance "meeting or exceeding customer requirements" or in "totally delighting the customer."

How do you know whether or not you have met or exceeded customer requirements? Simple. Ask them, through periodic surveys, focus groups, suggestion boxes, and other feedback loops. TQM organizations are forever asking their customers "how are we doing?" and then taking steps to improve quality based on what they hear.


Under the TQM paradigm all work is considered a process, and all processes are variable, that is, the outputs are never completely uniform. There are two types of variation--common and special--that can be determined by simple statistical techniques. Common variation in work is expected, normal, and can be predicted. A work process that displays common variation is said to be "in control." The only way to improve a process "in control" is to make adjustments to the system, which is solely under the purview of management.

Work that falls outside of normal limits is called special variation and each case needs to be closely examined to determine the exact cause. Removal of the causes of special variation is often times best done by the people who work directly with the process. As a rule of thumb, it is said that 85% of process variability can be attributed to the system, with people being held responsible for the remaining 15% (Gitlow & Gitlow, 1987).


People working together in teams characterize a TQM organization that is "mission-driven" rather than "rules and regulations driven." Empowered, self-directed work teams are free from typical bureaucratic controls and assume responsibility for many functions usually performed by management, such as assigning work loads, evaluating outputs, hiring and terminating employees, even salary administration. The role of the leader in a TQM organization is changed from that of supervisor of people to process consultant, from individual evaluator to group dynamics facilitator, from order giver to listener. TQM organizations are characterized by a fierce commitment to training and often begin the transition to teamwork by teaching employees about small group dynamics and facilitation.

Focusing their attention on the sources of process variation, managers are expected to devote about 85% of their time to improving the system. TQM managers are mainly responsible for providing the training and tools necessary for people to perform their jobs. They are relieved from much of the personnel evaluation work, such as individual performance appraisal and management by objectives, that creates fear in the workplace and detracts from a quality focus.

Continuous Improvement

A TQM organization focuses on constantly getting better at what it does. This commitment to continuous improvement is frequently accomplished through ad hoc process improvement teams that are put together to address some identified organizational need or problem. These topics are often surfaced through survey and other customer feedback techniques. Statistical data are used to define the issue and measure the progress of improvements. Successful CQI (Continuous Quality Improvement) projects are often the first tangible results of TQM efforts. Continuous improvement projects have been successfully carried out in an Extension setting (Jones & Jost, 1993).

A Future Extension TQM Scenario

If an Extension system were to adapt TQM, this might be one scenario:

        TQM enjoys the long term, unconditional support from top
     leaders.  All employees know the Extension system mission
     and how they contribute toward it.  Their actions are always
     guided by this sense of mission, not by bureaucratic rules
     and regulations.  Each employee has identified his/her
     external and internal Extension customers.  Well
     established, permanent feedback mechanisms are established
     to determine different customer needs and measure Extension
     program outcomes.  Feedback is not used for unproductive and
     threatening evaluation of personnel, but is considered a
     critical component for Extension process improvement.

     Extension employees benchmark the best performing
     organizations in the private and public sectors, comparing
     processes and learning from them.

        Groups of customers work with Extension personnel on the
     local, state, and federal levels as teams dedicated to
     improving services to customers.  The major role of
     Extension administrators is to provide training and tools
     that their internal customers (employees) need to do their
     jobs.  The Extension organization has a international
     reputation for high quality training in such areas a group
     dynamics, teamwork, systems thinking, and statistics, as
     well as up-to-date subject matter.

        Working with data and the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act)
     cycle, self directed work teams choose a focus for the team,
     make assignments, develop feedback processes, evaluate the
     outcomes and make process improvements.  Extension employees
     also belong to several ad hoc process improvement
     teams--dedicated to improving Extension processes, ranging
     from program development to personnel procedures.

Public Sector Pitfalls

Although there are many successful TQM pilot projects in the public sector, most of them have begun within the last few years. Three pitfalls are beginning to emerge in the public sector's adoption of TQM.

Government Culture: Politics and turnover in public sector leadership tend to fragment the adoption of TQM. TQM is a very long term process that never ends--the antithesis of the current revolving door of administrators with their own short term agendas.

Additional Customers Don't Necessarily Lead to Additional Revenues: Public organizations that improve quality and service to customers may be faced with more work with the same or even less money available to serve their additional customers. Improved quality of service in the public sector doesn't directly translate into the allocation of more dollars.

Quantity vs. Quality Dilemma: Demand almost always exceeds capacity in the public sector and this issue seems to be exacerbated by TQM. A public service organization is always faced with the issue of balancing customers who require services but cannot receive them with customers who get some but not all the services they need (Rago, 1994).

The Crystal Ball

Extension is long overdue for fundamental change. There is a palpable growing dissatisfaction with the stodgy, bureaucratic, command-and-control structure found throughout Extension, while shrinking budgets, an eroding political base, and a loss of prestige have put Extension in a tenuous position.

TQM represents a way out of Extension's current malaise. Despite the potential public sector pitfalls, TQM seems to make a great deal of sense for Extension. Extension is well positioned to embrace TQM for a number of reasons. Extension serves as the nexus of TQM efforts in higher education and the Federal government, two organizations that are experimenting heavily with TQM. Essentially Extension work is a process, which fits with the process-orientation of TQM. Extension personnel also have considerable experience working with "customers"--having developed long lasting relationships with clientele. The extensive work done in program development and evaluation over the past twenty years serves as a solid framework for future CQI efforts under TQM.

Although it takes considerable time to change organizational culture and train people to work in fundamentally new ways, Extension cannot afford to remain complacent. The millennium is bearing down on us, and those organizations that are not prepared to improve year after year will fall by the wayside. It is time to seize TQM's promise of improved organizational performance as there are other less desirable scenarios lurking in the haze of Extension's crystal ball.


Chaffee, E., & Sheer, L. (1992). Quality: Transforming postsecondary education (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 3). Washington, DC: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Gitlow, H., & Gitlow, S. (1987). The Deming guide to quality and competitive position. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hamilton, M., Mendelowitz, A., & Fogel, R. (1991/92). TQM at GAO. The GAO Journal, Winter, 39-47.

Jones, L., & Jost, M. (1993). Beyond 'business as usual.' Journal of Extension, XXXXI(Summer), 18-20.

Rago, W. (1994, January/February). Adapting total quality management (TQM) to government: Another point of view. Public Administration Review, 54(1), 61-64.

Schmidt, W., & Finnegan, J. (1992). The race without a finish line: America's quest for total quality. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Swiss, J. (1992, July/August). Adapting total quality management (TQM) to government. Public Administration Review, 52(4), 356-361.