TQM: Is It Still Viable? Is It Passé?

How To Implement Quality Initiatives

by Wayne Coleman

Management buzzwords are short-lived. Among recent coinages are Quality Circles, Quality Groups, Quality Management, cqi (continuous quality improvement), Team Building, Self-Directed Work Teams, Reengineering, and, of course, TQM, or Total Quality Management. The initials TQM are already disappearing from corporate business cards and department titles. But is TQM passé, or do Total Quality Management principles endure in efforts to improve guest perceptions of and satisfaction with our facilities and services?

TQM evolved out of manufacturing and technical industries use of employee groups to improve productivity and quality of output or finished goods. Early TQM efforts relied heavily upon statistical controls which not only confuse lay persons, but are disincentives to initiation by management of any quality improvement programs. In some industries labor unions have equated TQM with productivity improvement, hence potentially fewer employees, and therefore have not embraced TQM activities.

So how does TQM relate to our service industry? A small poll of IAAM members actively undertaking quality improvement initiatives revealed no one using the TQM label in describing their efforts. Though every member interviewed has a slightly different approach to quality improvement, common principles and implementations underlie their strategies.

Most important among these shared characteristics are the following:

  1. The facility has written values, a vision, and a mission statement. 
  2. Employees are aware of the values, vision, and mission and management’s commitment to quality. 
  3. Management uses customer feedback in improving service and systems. 
  4. Employees are involved in creating recommendations for quality improvement. 
  5. Employees are continually reminded to live the values.

The common bottom line appears to be improved guest service, improved employee morale, and better productivity. Let’s examine how several successful facilities approach and implement these five characteristics.

A Quality Analogy

Consider a quality improvement effort by an office furniture manufacturing company. To improve a product, let’s say a chair, a small group of employees places the chair on a table in the conference room, or on a workbench in the plant, and starts questioning, "What can we do to make this chair better? Add cushioning, wider arm rests, bigger seat, better casters, lighter or stronger materials, different fabric?" Synergistically, through brainstorming and group discussion, the group formulates ideas to improve the chair.

Suppose one group member decides that the chair should be plusher and more luxurious while another member focuses on cost reductions and reducing price to the customer. What guidelines can group members use to resolve these conflicting goals? This group needs to determine, among other things, who will use the chair, how they will use it, and what factors will determine users’ satisfaction. In terms of the purpose of this analogy the group needs to decide upon product positioning. In the broader scope of our analogy the group needs values, a vision, and a mission.

Characteristic One: Values, Vision, and Mission

"If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there." Statements of values, vision, and mission are prerequisites to undertaking quality initiatives. These statements create a goal for what you want your facility to be and how you want it to be perceived, and guidelines for how you will lead your facility to that goal.

Scott Williams, CFE, says his Delta Center employees have embraced a program asking people to take their lives and performance up to the next level. Values regarding ethics and integrity, lifestyle, family values, customer values, and how employees treat one another impact even the types of events Delta Center produces. To live the values Delta Center’s management and exempt employees are encouraged to participate in ongoing education programs such as Oglebay, the International Crowd Management Conference, community college courses, and to stay abreast of periodicals and books. Says Mr. Williams, "We hire good people, train them, retain them, and get out of their way and let them work."

The San Diego Convention Center Corporation’s (SDCCC) nine team values incorporate employees, integrity, leadership, teamwork, communication, customer service, results, innovation, and diversity. The SDCCC expresses its vision in part by saying:

"We lead the industry with:

  • innovative services and programs that surpass customer expectations 
  • the friendliest and most helpful team 
  • technology to optimize customer satisfaction, facility operations and business opportunities 
  • facilities that are appealing and attractive, clean and well maintained.

We attract, develop and retain the most talented team members...We are committed to the fair and equitable treatment of all employees...The spirit of hospitality guides our relationship with our guests...We understand our customers’ business, anticipate their needs, and dedicate resources to promote mutual success...The art of presentation is our science."

SDCCC’s Event Services Director Brad Gessner says that to achieve total service each employee is empowered to take care of an attendee’s needs. For example, a housekeeper knows that he or she will not get in trouble for taking a few minutes to answer a guest’s directional request by showing the guest the way rather than by merely giving directions.

The Washington State Convention and Trade Center (WSCTC) lists among the beliefs that define its values:

"We believe...

  • ...our guests are important individuals and should be treated with extraordinary courtesy, respect and service. 
  • ...any employee who receives a guest’s request "owns" the request until it is resolved. 
  • ...(our) five (quality) Service Standards are the driving force behind everything we do. 
  • ...in the value of providing ongoing employee training which supports our corporate vision."

Implementation of these values is guided by WSCTC’s five quality service standards:

  1. Safety...always first and never compromised. 
  2. Courtesy...extended to guests, neighbors and fellow staff members. 
  3. Show...non-verbal and verbal messages given by the appearance and actions of the facility and staff members. 
  4. Efficiency...the ease by which quality service is provided. 
  5. Evaluation...leads the way to continuous improvement.

Linda Willanger, WSCTC’s executive assistant to the president, says that, "by having one set of service standards, all staff members will better understand priorities and will have a consistent frame of reference when handling a work situation which is not covered by an established department or organizational procedure." WSCTC employees are trained to ask themselves, "Does what I am about to do address all of our service standards? They phrase their vision as "Doing ordinary things in an extraordinary manner!" (One fundamental of the classic TQM process involves "doing the right things right.") Similarly, Mina Boyd, Director of the Tampa Convention Center, says her center’s vision is "to become known locally, nationally and internationally as a dynamic convention, trade show and meeting facility."

So the first key link between all of these successful efforts is that these facilities have stated values, a vision, and a mission.

Characteristic Two: Employee Awareness of Values, Vision, Mission, and Quality Commitment

A second key link between these successful programs is that employees are aware of the facility’s values, vision, and mission and are frequently reminded of the facility’s commitment to quality in support of the mission.

Ms. Boyd has Tampa Convention Center’s vision and mission statements posted outside the elevators where every employee sees them every day. And every department’s working procedures manual has its own mission statement as it relates to their department. Their "No Problem" and "Anything but Conventional" advertising campaign is designed to increase bookings during periods of non-conventional activity. The slogan "Anything but Conventional" communicates the Center’s availability for banquets, corporate meetings, seminars, entertainment and consumer trade shows, and their "No Problem" buttons demonstrate their commitment to service. Just as importantly, the slogans serve as continual reminders to the Center’s employees of the ongoing commitment to quality service.

At SDCCC the "San Diego Spirit" employee handbook explains Convention Center’s program and philosophy—the key to their people’s success in service. From their first minute of hire, those who have been chosen to represent the Center are imbued with the spirit of quality service that will become a way of life on the job.

At Toronto’s SkyDome David Garrick, Vice President of Corporate Affairs, says, "There are no secrets at SkyDome." Their QSP (Quality, Service, People) vision and mission statement hangs in public areas throughout SkyDome so that not only are employees continually reminded of QSP, but guests are aware of SkyDome’s commitment to their enjoyment. The QSP ideals are a fundamental customer service training portion of new employee orientation at SkyDome University where the motto is "nulli secondus," second to none.

The Washington State Convention and Trade Center also uses the initials QSP- Quality Service Plan. Their 12-page QSP booklet is not a "how-to" manual but rather a shared vision in which President John Christison encourages employees to "...provide exceptional service, delivered in a memorable fashion, at a level that exceeds the expectations of our guests." The QSP booklet explains their facility’s beliefs, their vision, and their service standards. Very importantly, it acknowledges the contributions of the employee teams who developed the QSP, letting new employees know that the program came from their peers and is not merely a mandate from above.

Characteristic Three: Using Customer Feedback for Determining What to Improve

A third key link between these successful programs is that they gather and use customer feedback. Surveys are not new; most facilities conduct surveys of some sort. However, the data requested, the analysis and interpretation of that data, and the actions taken based upon that data separate the "quality movers and shakers" from the pack.

Pat Christenson of the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV uses surveys, focus groups, and both external and internal shoppers. A typical focus group consists of eight to ten customers gathered in a conference room who answer questions presented by a group moderator. Says Mr. Christenson of shoppers, "In-house people know what they’re looking for, while outsiders just tell you what they see."

His one-page survey evaluations request feedback on the box office (hours of operation, ticket distribution, staff courtesy, staff helpfulness), parking (access, space availability, staff courtesy, helpfulness), arena (usher courtesy and helpfulness, police courtesy and helpfulness, arena access, cleanliness, directional signs, sound quality, rest room availability and cleanliness) and concessions (availability, staff courtesy, menu variety, food quality). The survey allows for five ratings ranging from ‘very satisfied’ to ‘very dissatisfied’ with an optional ‘not applicable’ rating. Rather than handing a survey sheet to a guest for completion and hoping for its return at a later time, Thomas & Mack Center employees spend a few minutes with a guest verbally administering the survey and checking off responses. Guests receive a soft drink coupon for their efforts.

In San Diego, Mr. Gessner makes attendees surveys very visible and available at all concierge desks in the SDCCC. He also provides each client with an "Exit Evaluation" requesting a 1-10 rating for such areas as sales, event management, facility services (separate categories for telecommunications, guest relations, security, business center), the facility (lobby area, meeting rooms, rest rooms, grounds), A/V (personnel and equipment), F&B (catering manager, catering, concessions) parking, hotels, and the city itself. Each category has sub-categories such as professionalism, responsiveness, signage, cleanliness, etc. Numeric tabulations of responses by category reveal areas of consistent strengths along with areas that guests may consider less than superior. When charted quarterly to cover many events the ratings can show trends in perceived quality of service. Results are reviewed and discussed at monthly meetings. Survey comments received are very candid and wherever possible glitches occurred Mr. Gessner follows up with show managers to find out what happened.

Characteristic Four: Employee Involvement in Quality Improvement Recommendations

Quality Circle? Quality Group? Quality Task Force? The buzzwords change, but simple concepts make employee involvement in quality improvement both feasible and desirable. A fourth key link between these successful programs is that employees were involved in the process of creating recommendations for quality improvement. Many facilities have initiated quality groups or task forces to examine what should be improved and how improvements might be effected, and to make quality improvement recommendations to management.

At the Thomas & Mack Center, Mr. Christenson addresses quality improvement goals with quality teams and focus groups. As a university facility, they have utilized marketing professors/consultants to help lead their focus groups.

WSCTC president John Christison sent two managers to a Disney quality training program prior to doing an analysis of their own quality requirements. Upon their return they conducted a "Why" session, where managers flowcharted how information flows between departments. The first phase in developing their Quality Service Plan was to establish a vision of quality service for the organization, with the resultant vision "Doing ordinary things in an extraordinary manner." Phase two involved determining the service standards that would be used universally by their people to bring them closer to the reality of the vision. The third phase was to determine the key elements that make up the WSCTC—the framework of the organization.

They formed five teams with 5-6 employees each representing all levels of the organization. Each team focused on one of the five elements of the WSCTC framework: Guests (people who come through the doors as well as co-workers), Setting (appearance of the facility as well as each staff member’s appearance), Systems (methods, procedures and guidelines which help delivery of quality service), Staff (individuals who deliver quality service through their actions and work), and Service Goals (objectives which lead to the vision). Each team had two co-captains consisting of one management and one line staff person. Though the teams worked independently, they held a joint meeting and made one site visit to another facility to expand team member visions and foster additional inputs and creativity.

Each group developed a list of belief statements and recommendations. The belief statements are incorporated in their 12-page Quality Service Plan, a living document studied by every new hire. The recommendations, including some that would cost money and some that would not, were prioritized and presented to management. Suggestions ranged from adding ATMs, changing or adding signage, changing printout of payroll reports, to adding a transportation hut by the loading dock for greater staff efficiency and improved show.

The original five groups dissolved after completing their assignments, and WSCTC formed an ongoing quality service advisory group consisting of some management and line staff representing all departments. The group meets monthly to monitor and evaluate all aspects of quality. The entire facility benefits as all departments develop an appreciation for how their actions and departmental policies affect other departments.

The Tampa Convention Center also maintains an ongoing quality group called a Team Leadership Committee (TLC) consisting of one representative from each area. At each monthly meeting any committee member may bring up issues that occurred during the prior month. For example, if an operations staff is having problems with food staff leaving certain categories of trash in improper areas, then following the meeting the F&B committee member may work with his or her people to determine possible solutions rather than being told what to do.

At Anaheim Arena, known as The Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim during Mighty Ducks events, General Manager Brad Mayne, CFE, has formed a focus group committee consisting of representatives from all divisions who were voted to that position by peers. The group meets quarterly in an open forum session where everyone is an equal and can bring up ideas for improvement or openly voice concerns. Information from the meetings is given to management in the form of reports so that management may make appropriate decisions regarding actions to pursue.

Though not specifically a quality group or quality function, 22 of Mr. Mayne’s 38 full-time staff sit in a staff meeting once per week discussing the full operation of the arena. Mr. Mayne says, "Parking gets to hear box office, conversion crew listens to what event coordinators have problems with, and the employees develop an understanding that they are on the same team working toward the same goals."

Characteristic Five: Ongoing Employee Quality Awareness

Finally, in all these successful programs, employees are continually reminded to live the values and breathe life into them through everything they do. Sustaining desired quality service and quality operations behavior in employees requires more than a quality booklet or a one-time quality service training session. Making quality service and quality operations become a way of life requires on-going reinforcement and demonstration by managers and supervisors who "walk the talk."

At Arrowhead Pond, Mr. Mayne says that the physical building and special employee uniforms visibly remind employees of their commitment to quality. Over 250,000 square feet of marble adorns the two public concourses, areas where guests might expect to see concrete, and polished marble wainscoting decorates the walls along with brass fixtures and cherry wood accents throughout the building. Even the process of receiving a uniform prior to each event—pleated pants, pressed shirt, tie, sweater vest—and turning it in at the end of an event serves as a reminder to all employees of commitment to service and show.

At pre-event meetings prior to doors opening Mr. Mayne’s employees are reminded of this commitment, and individual employees are recognized and thanked for superior service delivered at the prior event. Employees are also reminded of their empowerment to provide quality service. Mr. Mayne says, "For example, if a stand operator sees someone spill a drink near their stand the operator can immediately poor them a new drink and not have to worry about being off a cup in count."

All facilities echoed that employee recognition programs can further the quality initiatives. An in-house facility newsletter may incorporate the quality tip of the month. Special quality service or employee suggestions that promote quality might merit their own small article. Qualifications for employee of the month awards can include a quality of service or quality of performance factor. In short, full-time and event employees are continually reminded to pursue the facility’s quality vision.


Are there any dangers to using internal people to address quality issues? Pat Christenson points out that "When you start asking questions, you get answers, and some you may not like." While this may not be a problem for experienced facility managers, a mid-level or supervisory staff member leading a quality group may require facilitation training to avoid giving a thin-skinned response to a member’s input that could stifle further candid inputs or harm group morale.

Mr. Christenson adds, "You also start raising people’s expectations. If they know you’re trying to improve something, they expect to see better results." In other words, when quality groups present management with a list of recommendations and suggestions, they expect to see actions on some, though not necessarily all, of their recommendations. A successful group presents management with more recommendations than the facility can logistically or fiscally handle in a year. So in addition to praise and recognition for their efforts, the group also deserves feedback regarding management’s actions (or lack thereof) on their recommendations.

The message is clear. Do not form quality teams to perform an academic exercise. If you are not prepared to invest time and funds in systems and service improvement, don’t give your employees the false impression that things will improve.

Quality Without Groups

Is it possible to improve quality of service without first forming groups to address the issues? Dan Graveline and John Smith of the Georgia World Congress Center and Georgia Dome complex say the answer is yes. They have integrated quality customer service messages, tips, and techniques in all of their department meetings and training sessions.

They select one customer service tip from books each month, and their staff analyzes the tip and discusses applications within the building. This procedure is repeated at every staff meeting during the month, and the "tip of the month" is placed on a big chart outside the cafeteria and posted on bulletin boards. Everyone is reminded of that tip for the entire month. After two years of following this plan they are on their 25th tip. So even without participating in a task force or quality group all Georgia Dome and World Congress Center employees become involved in discussing quality improvement every month.

They also pursued quality improvement through education and training. They hired a training manager, located her within the Human Resources department, and then developed a training program for everyone in the building. Some courses are modeled after those offered at Oglebay and some reflect SkyDome University’s design. Every employee participates in a certain core curriculum every year. The core group includes customer service, ADA, international etiquette, communication, handling customer complaints, and so on. Rather than a quality buzzword such as TQM they use KSA, knowledge, skill, and ability, to describe their curriculum. For example, the Engineering Department’s training includes technical material—and quality of work—in addition to customer service and other core topics.


TQM is not a mysterious and complicated process practiced only by America’s corporate giants. In fact, as buzzwords come and go, the principles underlying quality improvement initiatives remain unchanged. Quality facilities, quality systems, and quality service never happen by accident. Though any facility can initiate a quality improvement program, all such programs take time and require a visible, unwavering commitment by management over the long haul. People make quality happen. People study and analyze the facility, systems, and service. People make the recommendations. People can change their on-the-job behaviors when they understand what to change, how to change, and why the change is important.

Reprinted from Facility Manager, March-April 1996