Feedback From The Front Lines - By Chelse Benham
On Nov. 20, Dr. Blandina Cárdenas, president at The University of Texas-Pan
American, addressed the Student Government Association on the role of
leadership. She instructed the group to organize and set firm obtainable goals for
themselves. In return, she would listen to the needs and concerns of the students
and get their feedback about the utilization of resources and new processes
being put in place to serve the students.
“The University is going to change whether we want it to or not. It must,”
Cárdenas said. “As leaders, you all must set goals with a benchmark process in
place, fulfill your committee responsibilities and recruit more students. You all are
on the ‘front lines.’ We (the administration) need feedback from you about how
this University is meeting the needs of the students.”
Cárdenas continued to illustrate the feedback process as a means of improving
organizations. To do so, she used the teachings of one of the world’s greatest
management experts to make her point; Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a
mathematical physicist at the United States Department of Agriculture and
Census Bureau research scientist.
The benefits of monitoring systems, improving processes and strengthening
management through the assimilation of information are not new. It has been
known for more than half a century that optimizing business processes yields
better results. However, it is how a company’s top management obtains
information and applies the acquired knowledge that makes the greatest
Total Quality Management (TQM) method supports the idea that management
must receive feedback from the people who are on the “front lines” of an
organization in order to stay competitive, on the cutting-edge and sufficiently in-
line with the times. This “front line” methodology was once considered a national
An American, Walter A. Shewhart of Bell Laboratories, developed a system of
measuring variance in production systems known as statistical process control
(SPC). Statistical process control is one of the major tools that TQM uses to
monitor consistency, as well as to diagnose problems in manufacturing.
During World War II, Deming, Shewhart’s student, was hired to teach SPC and
quality control to the U.S. defense industry. At this time, these methods were
considered so important to the war effort, they were classified as military secrets
known as Z1.
Ironically and unfortunately, after WW II most U.S. companies stopped using
SPC and TQM methodologies for quality control procedures, and this lead to the
critical failings and economic crisis in U.S. manufacturing in the late 1970s and
The crisis was most noticeable in the automobile industry because of foreign
competition. Among the many automobile manufacturers suffering from inefficient
operations and poor quality products, Chrysler had accumulated a huge
inventory of low-mileage cars at a time of rising fuel prices. The corporation faced
bankruptcy. In 1980, the federal government bailed the company out.
During this period, the reverse situation was occurring in Japan. The country had
all but cornered the market as one of the most aggressive and successful
automobile manufacturers in the world.
After WWII, U.S. occupation forces in conjunction with the Japanese Union of
Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) invited Deming to lecture throughout Japan on
SPC and quality control methodology. The Japanese were quick to adapt and
modify Deming's techniques, thus catapulting the country as a global competitor,
and changing the negative connotation associated with “made in Japan” with one
meaning excellence and high quality.
Deming’s economic restructuring launched Japan into a world class
manufacturer of electronics, televisions and automobiles with such companies as
Sony and Toyota at the helm. As a result of Deming’s work, Japanese
manufacturing companies were able to produce higher quality products at a
lower cost and gain a global advantage over that of the United States. The key to
success was in the feedback process.
Deming taught that variation is created at every step in a production process, and
variations have the potential to cause defects. To improve quality, productivity
and decrease costs, Deming proposed a continuous feedback and measurement
cycle. He placed special importance on implementing the suggestions of front
line employees. Arguing that because these individuals are closest to the job,
they can provide information about organizational practices and production
processes that are not apparent to management and executives removed from
the front lines.
For feedback to work, the work environment must support an “open door” policy.
It is up to managers to establish a work environment where an open exchange of
information takes place. Front line employees will be reluctant to make
suggestions unless those in charge demonstrate clearly and continuously that
their ideas are valued and possibly implemented.
According to Deming, there are 14 critical ideas in TQM. The points are part of a
system of management which Deming later described as the system of
“Profound Knowledge.” Some of the points listed here are on the W. Edwards
Deming Institute Web site.
1. Create constancy of purpose for the improvement of product and
service. With the aim to become competitive, stay in business and provide
2. Adopt the new philosophy of cooperation (win-win) in which everybody
wins. Put it into practice and teach it to employees, customers and
3. Cease dependence on mass inspection to achieve quality. Improve the
process and build quality into the product in the first place.
4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag
alone. Move toward a single supplier for any one item to build a long-term
relationship of loyalty and trust.
5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production, service
and planning. This will improve quality and productivity and thus
constantly decrease costs.
6. Institute training for skills.
7. Adopt and institute leadership for the management of people,
recognizing their different abilities, capabilities and aspirations. The aim of
leadership should be to help people, machines and gadgets do a better
8. Drive out fear and build trust so that everyone can work effectively.
9. Break down barriers between departments. Abolish competition and
build a win-win system of cooperation within the organization. People
in research, design, sales and production must work as a team to foresee
problems of production that might be encountered with the product or
10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets asking for zero defects
or new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial
relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity
belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
11. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
12. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the
transformation. The transformation is everybody's job.
Deming also identified what he termed the “Seven Deadly Diseases” of process.
The following are:
1. Lack of constancy of purpose.
2. Emphasis on short-term profits. Overreaction to short-term variation is
harmful to long-term success. With such focus on relatively unimportant
short-term results, focus on constancy of purpose is next to impossible.
3. Evaluation of performance, merit rating or annual review.
4. Mobility of top management – too much turnover causes numerous
5. Running a company on visible figures alone – many important factors are
"unknown and unknowable."
6. Excessive medical costs.
7. Excessive legal damage awards swelled by lawyers working on
Condensed into its fundamental components, Deming’s management method
stresses two major principals:
• Managers should not blame people – managers should blame the system.
• Managers should try to fit people into what they do best and value the
feedback they are given.
Deming had it right when he asserted that organizations should focus
professional energy on one central purpose, to constantly and forever improve its
systems of production and service. The way to do that is through feedback from
the frontlines. Questions managers and executives should be asking themselves
• Does management encourage employees to give their feedback?
• What types of processes are in place to receive the information? i.e.
surveys, complaint boxes, forums, “town hall meetings” and “walk and
talks” through the organization
• Are all levels of management, in every area of the organization, engaged
in feedback with their employees?
• How is that information being collected, assessed and implemented?
• Is information being handled in a timely fashion?
• Is the information making its way to the top?
• Are employees being informed about the value of their feedback?
As the name implies, feedback is a two-way communication process designed to
pass important information through the multi-layers of organizational hierarchy to
affect change and improve the product and services of a business. If currently
your company is not in the habit of seeking and evaluating feedback from its
frontlines then that is the place to start.
By creating a supportive environment, where feedback is fostered, the culture of
your organization will change. As employees begin to feel valued and heard, the
culture of the organization will transform itself. It is a slow and gradual process,
but all great accomplishments take time. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
“Leadership is not magnetic personality – that can just as well be a glib tongue. It
is not ‘making friends and influencing people’ – that is flattery. Leadership is
lifting a person's vision to higher sights, the raising of a person's performance to
a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.” –
Peter F. Drucker