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Saturday, September 15, 2012

TQM for the Greek public administration?

Let me first emphasize that it is next to impossible to change the culture in a large social system (be that a company or a public administration) in a short period of time. Any such social system has developed enormous powers to protect its survival as is. It acts like a cancer acts with the human body: it has seemingly endless resources to withstand treatment.

In my fourties, I worked for almost a decade for Creditanstalt, then Austria's premier banking institution: 125 years old; possibly the noblest Austrian institution; self-confident that the country could not exist without it (for sure, the country would have been different without it). Its executives were proud that when the Ministry of Finance had to formulate new laws, they came to Creditanstalt to write them. The bank had all the country's best private and corporate customers, the elite of the economy, and it employed an abundance of the best people which the country's educational system produced. Also --- the bank thought that the following had to be taken for granted: Creditanstalt didn't have to compete for the best customers and the best people. Instead, it was a distinction to do business with Creditanstalt and an honor to be able to work for it.

When globalization and Austria's joining the EU produced winds of change, the bank's management, the epitome of Austria's establishment, had an attack of self-recognition. They recognized that if the bank was to withstand these new winds/storms, it would have to adapt its culture: maintain the good and strong parts but do away with the arrogant waste.

Had a survey been made among employees whether the bank would ever change, perhaps 99% might have answered in the negative. The bank did change and it was a TQM-project (Total Quality Management) which helped bring it about.

TQM is essentially based on the involvement of all employees in the process of improving quality and bringing about change for the better. While "stars" play an important part in the spreading of a TQM-mentality, it is recognized that no social system could function if it had only stars as its employees (they would try to outsmart each other all the time). Instead, TQM is based on the notion that, while stars are important, it is the broad mass of employees who carry the day.

A group of about 200 was selected as "ambassadors" whose task it was to work with a total staff of about 6.500 in small group meetings. The technical term for that was "missionizing". Very soon it was recognized that one could hardly have chosen worse expressions for the task, but nevertheless.

I held about 30 such group meetings. We were not given a program. Instead, we were told to come up with our own ideas how to keep groups of 5-10 employees awake for about 2 hours after work talking about quality. Quality of everything. Quality of the organization, of its products, of its people, of its ethics, etc.

My technique was to present on a slide the Goethe quote of "Man should be noble, helpful and good!", say nothing and await the participants' reaction. In all but one meeting there was dead silence for quite some time. The one exception made a lasting impression on everyone.

The slide had hardly shown up when one of the participants, the manager of a small branch, literally exploded: "I can tell you one thing. With that attitude you will never make it to the Management Board of the bank!" Everyone laughed. In retrospect, I was happy that I came up with the following answer: "I am not naive enough to think that one makes it to the Management Board with this attitude today. But let me turn the question around. Couldn't one imagine that in order to make it to the Management Board of such a noble institution like Creditanstalt, it should be a prerequisite to share that attitude?"

Everyone quickly agreed on two things: that it should be a prerequisite but that this would never happen. I raised the question that, if we wanted it to happen, what could all of us collectively contribute to make it happen. With that, the 2 hours of the meeting went by in a hurry.

I can't say that TQM changed the entire bank. However, it became a major factor in triggering a substantial change in culture and attitudes after the process had taken place for about two years. Top management found itself trapped in its own initiative. Quite frequently when they displayed their unchanged authoritarian behavior and decision-making, some courageous employee dared to ask them the question whether they thought that this was compatible with TQM. In the days before TQM, that employee might have gotton fired for that. After TQM, top management found itself in the hot seat.

Anyone who thinks that one can change the Greek public administration simply by mandating new rules and by installing a few new bosses to implement those rules is in for a lesson. Before those new bosses accomplish anything, some of them might consider suicide because of all the bottom-up mobbing which they will confront. 

I can only recommend that the government engages hundreds of counselors, taken from within the public administration (perhaps with the assistance of an external advisor), who are given a clear objective of what should be accomplished and who will tirelessly hold meetings in small groups to engage the employees in that mission.

TQM does work! But it only works if the top brass wants it to work.

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