W. Edwards Deming is considered the father of total quality management (TQM), yet he reacts almost angrily to the term. "Don't ask me about it. I don't use it. It's not in my vocabulary," he said in a recent interview.

The statistician, who earned a doctorate at Yale University in 1928, is credited with helping Japanese industry make dramatic gains after World War II ("at their request," he stresses). Dr. Deming talks mostly about good management, rarely using the word quality.

"TQM is simply excellence," says Louis Lataif, dean of Boston University's school of management and a Deming disciple. "Excellence is not going to go out of fashion."

Dr. Lataif describes five facets of the system, all of which could apply to a school as easily as to a business:

Customer focus. Customers didn't know to ask for a microwave oven before it was invented, he notes. Successful companies direct their efforts to meet consumers' needs.

Management by facts. Deming and other statisticians developed methods to regularly test the output of a system, whether it is an factory assembly line or a sales force, to see how well it is functioning.

About 96 percent of problems are due to poor system design, not poor performance by the people in it, Deming contends.

Continuous improvement. Alternatives to the existing system are planned, tested, and then - if they are better - implemented.

Total involvement. Everyone in the system works toward the overall goal of the organization, not toward individual or narrow departmental goals.

Systemic support. The system is designed to be supportive of the preceding principles. Too often people are still promoted on the basis of how well they do for their department, not how well they serve the organization, Lataif says.

Deming tells of one company's travel department that saw its goal as keeping travel costs down. The result: An employee had to get up at 1 a.m. to catch a cheap flight to New York for an important afternoon meeting; the travel department saved $138.

Lataif acknowledges that, while these concepts are vital to the "how" of running an organization, they do not provide the "what" - the sense of mission or direction. "That's leadership," he says.

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