Traditional PM and TQM

inconsistent in theory and practice?


Robert A. Walker

Total Quality Management is both a philosophy and a strategy. It defines how an organization approaches its work and how it carries out its commitments to customers. The environment of TQM encompasses both the customers and their suppliers: the customers work with suppliers to define the customers' needs and the suppliers work with the customers to develop the processes to produce the products that will meet those needs. TQM defines the commitment of management, employees, suppliers, and customers to providing quality to all end-users, both internal and external to the organization. TQM encompasses all processes and integrates all functional areas. It is the natural evolution from quality control inspections and quality assurance processes.

Project management is also both a philosophy and a strategy. It addresses the relationships between project teams, functional organizations and customers and suppliers. Like TQM, project management is meant to provide an overarching framework governing interrelated activities. A natural question is: To what extent are the philosophies and practices of project and total quality management compatible, and what inconsistencies, if any, exist between the two?

Customer Relationships

One of the first potential inconsistencies between TQM and project management practice is the relationship between customers and their suppliers. TQM requires a different relationship between an organization and its customers than has historically existed in project-oriented organizations. Traditionally, factors such as competitive considerations and government regulations result in a de facto barrier between the customer and potential suppliers until the customer finally awards a contract. This barrier is, perhaps, greatest in federal government acquisitions. Preliminary discussions are guarded—the customer is unwilling to bare its real situation, and potential suppliers are unwilling to tell too much, lest they lose a potential competitive advantage. Without the free flow of information, neither the customer nor potential suppliers understand the real needs of the project and the performance required to meet those needs. Once the effort is under contract and work has begun, changes are more difficult to implement, and the supplier's efforts remain directed toward meeting contractual specifications instead of the customer's real needs.

In contrast, a TQM environment begins by breaking down the barriers between the customer and potential suppliers. Cooperation is substituted for the preferred project management confrontational approach, and openness for guarded exchanges. These differences extend to the relationships between contractors and their subcontractors.

Subcontractor Relationships

In traditional project management practice, prime contractors are expected to maintain formal relationships with their subcontractors and suppliers, similar to the relationship between the customer and the prime contractor. Contracts and subcontracts are awarded on the basis of the current quote or proposal. Past or potential future relationships usually bear little formal weight in the selection process.

The TQM philosophy emphasizes long-term relationships and supplier loyalty over the specifics of the current quote. Over time, according to that philosophy, the joint interests between customers and their prime contractors and between prime contractors and cle costs, superior performance, and better value. Under TQM, a key management task is to identify companies and organizations that are capable of and willing to enter a long-term relationship and are committed to the TQM philosophy. Quality and service, under this philosophy, are as important as cost in selecting suppliers.

According to the TQM philosophy, suppliers are not just other companies that want to sell their products and services: suppliers exist within the same company or organization. Extrapolating the philosophy about selecting suppliers, the project office may not automatically “award” work to functional departments within the organization. These internal departments must compete for work against other potential suppliers. If outside suppliers provide better potential for meeting long-term TQM goals, they will get the work. This is a radical philosophy according to American corporate business practice. In the TQM environment, however, only this philosophy can keep a company competitive over the long term.


TQM also requires that each phase of the product's life cycle be structured and evaluated based on its effect on the fundamental purposes behind the project. In such an environment, development costs can be traded off for lower manufacturing costs, performance requirements can be traded for lower operations and maintenance costs and higher availability rates. The flexibility to make these tradeoffs is required long-range planning in a TQM environment naturally considers the tradeoff issue, including producibility and maintainability as part of the technical, cost, and schedule dimensions of project management. Project management, in theory at least, also supports these same tradeoffs. In traditional practice, however, tradeoffs often do not extend beyond the current project phase and do not involve all of the participants.

The tradeoff problem extends beyond the life cycle demands of the particular project, which is often a component of a larger system. Optimizing this system (or program) requires tradeoffs among constituent projects. Working toward the larger objectives is integral to the TQM philosophy for individual projects, an emphasis that is not supported by many traditional project management environments.

Project and Functional Department Interactions

The requirement for close cooperation between the project office and functional departments is, generally, greater in a TQM environment. Traditional project management divides the project into increasingly detailed tasks (the work breakdown structure). Ultimately, the tasks are defined so narrowly that they fall under the primary responsibility of a single functional manager. The functional managers are responsible for how well their efforts meet the specifications identified for the tasks. If the work has been properly structured and the specifications correctly identified, the product or service should perform as expected.

ates artificial barriers between departments and the project office. Functional managers often concentrate on their own requirements, paying little attention to how their efforts affect other project work and the final product or service. The mechanism usually does not exist for constantly seeking out tradeoff possibilities among tasks and departments. Often compounding the problem is a performance evaluation process that penalizes a manager for increased costs or extended schedules, even though the net effect is a better product or service. A TQM environment encourages tradeoffs among departments and includes the customer in the decision process.

Motivation and Performance Appraisal

Project management encourages individual worker initiative and worker creativity. But, these worthwhile goals are often limited by work rules and evaluation criteria that channel worker efforts toward subgoals rather than the primary objectives of the project or organization. Workers are rewarded by how well they meet individual objectives, which may not be totally consistent with the overall interests of the organization or the customer. This individual focus detracts from the ability of the project team to work together unselfishly for the good of the organization.

In a TQM environment, individual workers and departments are evaluated on the achievement of organizational objectives. Joint, not individual, achievement is encouraged and recognized.


A major criticism levied against traditional management is its emphasis on functional objectives at the expense of organizational objectives. TQM proponents could claim that traditional project management also suffers from this problem.

Part of the evaluation process for functional managers is how well they meet the performance, cost and schedule subgoals identified in the project plans. This process takes the focus away from the end-product and meeting customer needs. Functional departments and workers have little incentive to improve quality and value beyond what is required. Because functional managers and workers are evaluated on how well they meet their sub-objectives, they have a strong incentive to set mediocre objectives. The result is a mediocre product and reduced worker satisfaction.

Another perverse result of the traditional performance appraisal system is its forced competition among workers. Some workers, unless the system is truly perverse, must be, by definition, below average. With the traditional appraisal system, the attention of below-average workers is focused on how to move ahead of fellow workers, not on how to improve the product or service. One way of advancing is to pull others down, a truly dysfunctional action!

Inspections and Quality Control

In the traditional manufacturing process, supported by many project organizations, inspections are expected to find problems before a product or service is delivered. If problems are found, the search begins for the culprit, who will be admonished or warned not to transgress again. Under these conditions, it is in the workers' personal interests to hide quality problems.

In a TQM environment, workers are expected to be their own inspectors. Quality is the result of design and process decisions, not inspections at the end of the process. Workers are expected to halt operations, if necessary, to correct quality problems before the product advances to the next stage of production. Instead of being punished, workers are rewarded, because their actions help ensure a quality product. Workers are rewarded, or penalized, according to the success of the end-product or service, not on how well they perform individually. They have a strong incentive not to accept an intermediate product that fails to meet quality standards, because, by doing so, they will be reducing their own possible rewards and hurting the team's efforts.

In a TQM environment, each phase of the process carries with it internal quality checks, performed not by outside inspectors but by the workers themselves. With the emphasis on the final product or service, workers are challenged to develop better ways to support each other and to improve the process and the final product or service.


A cursory examination of traditional project management and TQM philosophies can easily lead to the conclusion that the two are consistent. More detailed examination, particularly on how they are implemented, reveals many differences. The majority of these differences center around TQM's emphasis on the overall needs of the customer, organizations, and workers. This is fundamentally different from traditional project management's focus on project and subproject objectives. Adding to the differences is the greater tendency of worker interactions in a project management environment that leads to defensive behavior, dysfunctional competition and a focus on lower-level objectives. TQM, in theory and in practice, suffers from its own inconsistencies and implementation problems, a topic that deserves separate study. However, TQM can still have a positive effect on project management philosophy and practice if practitioners and theorists incorporate the positive aspects of TQM. The synergy, which might be referred to as Total Project Management, would be a more appropriate guide for project managers as we enter the 21st century. ■

Robert A. Walker is president of Advanced Systems, Inc., a Washington, D.C. area consulting and management systems integration company specializing in project, financial and integrated information management system development.

Reader Service Number 5043

PM Network • February 1996



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