Zen and the Art of Total Quality

“The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times…He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, is unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be “here.” What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it is all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The most fulfilling part of my job is helping American and Japanese workforces communicate and work together effectively. After wrapping up two cross-cultural management seminars several years ago at a Japanese transplant, I was invited to dinner by the Japanese president at a local restaurant.

The meal started out with the standard small talk you’d expect at a business dinner. But as the evening unfolded and the beer flowed, the president started probing into my professional experience and ideas on management. I had no idea at the time where the conversation was going. I just remember him firing off questions in Japanese, and refilling my glass between each sip of beer. If it weren’t for the alcohol, I’d have thought it was a job interview.

The beer-pouring ritual soon achieved its intended purpose of lightening the mood, and the shy president began to open up. Our conversation drifted to various topics—his ongoing efforts to understand U.S. labor laws, his struggles to deploy strategic policies among the American ranks, and recurring operational problems in the factory. The president was harshly critical of himself and expressed concern about the state of his organization. None of this alarmed me, of course, as Japanese leaders of even the most successful companies are fond of the old “sky-is-falling” line. Yet in this particular instance, the president’s humility and concern seemed genuine.

His concerns notwithstanding the alcohol kept the mood light and relaxed. With my guard down I didn’t see the next question coming: would I train his American managers on Total Quality Management?

Stunned, I bowed my head and politely declined. Total Quality Management was not my bag. Many other more qualified consultants specialized in this kind of training and I offered to introduce them.

The Japanese president dismissed my protests: “You can teach Total Quality Management, that’s what we’ve been talking about all evening! I have no idea how to teach it to Americans, and can’t speak English, anyway. You understand TQM, and our American employees will listen to you.”

Most entrepreneurs with even modest ambitions would jump at the chance to expand sales and enter a new market segment. But in my mind TQM was the domain of quality control professionals well versed in statistical methods. It was about scatter diagrams, bar charts, histograms, Pareto analysis, control charts, fish-bone diagrams and measles charts, what’s known as the Seven Quality Tools. I had studied them all and had a working knowledge of how to use them. But it didn’t qualify me to teach TQM. The president had to know that he had people within his organization more qualified to teach his employees how to use these tools, and I proposed it as a cost-saving option.

He dismissed my idea with a wave of his hand: “We don’t want to teach them about the statistical tools,” he said. “They’ve already been trained in that and the results haven’t met our expectations. Something is missing. Our American staff needs to understand the philosophy and spirit behind the tools. Please help us teach them this kind of thinking.”

For the remainder of the evening the president poured my beer, dismissed my protests and stroked my ego until the TQM training started looking like a good idea—in a blurry, impaired sort of way. And somewhere in the cobwebs of my memory I recall promising to do my best, then being driven back to the hotel where I crawled into bed and fell fast asleep. The next day under the glaring lights of sobriety I realized the commitment I had made and started worrying. How was I going to develop a seminar on a topic with such vague parameters? I had no clue what the president wanted me to do.

Any cross-cultural specialist worth his salt understands that when people talk, subtle assumptions about the meanings of words can make or break whether they truly communicate. So my first challenge was to make sure we were defining the word “quality” the same way. This turned out to be a fruitful direction.

What is Quality?

“Quality…you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist…Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others…but what’s the “betterness”?…so round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”

Robert Pirsig

After thirty years of listening to Japanese friends, family and coworkers complain about the inferior quality of American products and services, there is no doubt in my mind that the definition of “quality” is colored heavily by culture.

If you’ve had the opportunity to serve the Japanese market you know that the average Japanese customer has higher expectations than Americans when it comes to quality and service. What’s not so obvious is that unlike Westerners, who tend to conceptualize quality as something that exists “inside” the objects around them, the Japanese see it more as a spiritual state of mind.

This is an important cultural assumption that colors the Japanese view of the world: the implicit belief that whatever manifests on the outside—the well-run factory, the timely departure of the bullet train, the high-precision widget, the impeccable and consistent service—comes from the spirit within the people doing the work. That’s why Toyota focuses on developing people before making cars: they know that quality cars can only come from the hearts and hands and minds of quality people. It’s classic inside-out-process-orientated thinking.

And with this thought the Japanese president’s expectation of the training became clear to me: he wanted to infuse his company with some Total-Quality soul—or to borrow Toyota’s expression, to inspire employees to cultivate a “challenging-mind” culture.

The connection the president made between developing a “challenging mind” and creating a Total Quality Management culture, got me thinking about a book on Quality written decades before.

Long before America’s Total Quality Management boom in the eighties, philosopher Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The relevance of this book to my predicament was its focus on the spiritual dimension of Quality—that elusive “challenging mind” that Japanese leaders love to talk about.

To give some background, Zen is a true story about author Robert Pirsig’s personal inquiry into the values that shape how Westerners conceptualize reality. Pirsig literally went insane trying to figure out how the notion of “Quality” fits into the Western world’s view of reality. Lost in the depths of his philosophical construct, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to an institution. Before being committed, he constructed a philosophy that united Eastern and Western outlooks based on the organizing concept of Quality, or “goodness”. He called his philosophical construct, the Metaphysics of Quality.

Pirsig’s mental condition was diagnosed and treated back when shock treatments were considered an acceptable method of therapy. He was subjected to numerous shock treatments intended to erase his “insane” personality. The book unfolds years later inside Pirsig’s head as he rides his motorcycle from Minnesota to the West Coast with his eleven-year-old son in tow. While they are riding, he begins to remember who he was before the shock treatments, and reconstructs for the reader the Metaphysics of Quality.

It’s a beautiful story, impossible to do justice to in a couple paragraphs. But one memorable lesson I took from Pirsig’s musings is that quality should be your inner spiritual guide, and you connect with quality through the simple act of caring. Cultivate Quality in the inside – care enough to seek out goodness – and quality will naturally reflect in the work you do.

Pirsig reminds us that the “measurement techniques, the charts and graphs are just a means to an end”; that the ultimate human motivation for connecting with quality is to achieve “peace of mind,” nothing more.

In the Quality-centered world defined by Pirsig, the Japanese president’s concerns made perfect sense. The president had lost his peace of mind and was struggling to get it back. He knew his organization needed to continue reaching for higher levels of quality to survive. It bothered him that his American employees didn’t seem motivated to improve themselves, and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why.

The president wanted his American workforce to embrace Total Quality as a way of life, not just learn how to use statistical tools. The distinction was important to him. He had made the innocent mistake of assuming his American staff had already cultivated a quality state of mind when the company provided training in the Seven Quality tools. What he didn’t realize is they had simply shoveled the statistical tools into a collective state of mind grounded in ego.

Painting the Roses Red

What happens when employee behavior is grounded in ego? An excerpt from Alice in Wonderland provides an apt analogy:

Alice stumbles onto a group of cheerful card characters singing, “We’re painting the roses red! We’re painting the roses red!”

A confused Alice asks them why in the world they would paint the roses red.

They respond:

“Why the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a red rose tree, and we put a white one in by mistake.”

The lesson? Treating the symptoms of a mistake is analogous to painting the roses red. And educating your workforce on the Seven Quality tools without a thorough grounding in the values that form their foundation almost guarantees your workforce will be “painting the roses red.” Said another way, they will be compelled to weave the data to make themselves look good, or at least not guilty.

The truth is if employees don’t care about their work, then all the fancy-shmancy statistical tools in the world ain’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Without a certain measure of humility, “Total Quality” becomes a big charade, a fake scoreboard designed to prop people up with bullshit—to paint the roses red—rather than use the data to genuinely improve oneself.

Using an honest Total-Quality approach to the white-rose problem starts with calling the white roses what they are: white roses!

It means acknowledging that white roses are not what the King ordered. It means getting to the root of the problem instead of putting on a bandaid–or covering up the problem with a fresh coat of red paint.

If employees don’t care enough to figure out root causes and implement appropriate measures, they’ll be painting the roses red forever.

In this instance, the Japanese president had provided systems and tools that enabled his employees to keep score, but it was a game grounded in ego. The president was on a mission to dig up the white roses and plant the red, spiritual seeds of a quality consciousness, with the goal of inspiring egoless introspection; he wanted to start on the “inside” by inviting his American employees to engage in the humble act of reflection, and work their way out from there. He wanted them to want to improve themselves.

The Humility-Quality Connection

Inspiring employees to look inward for quality is a tall order. Here’s some wisdom from Pirsig on the role of humility and introspection when searching for quality ways to solve problems:

If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened. Your ego isolates you from the Quality reality. When the facts show that you’ve just goofed, you’re not as likely to admit it. When false information makes you look good, you’re likely to believe it. On any mechanical repair job ego comes in for rough treatment. You’re always being fooled, you’re always making mistakes, and a mechanic who has a big ego to defend is at a terrific disadvantage. If you know enough mechanics to think of them as a group, and your observations coincide with mine, I think you’ll agree that mechanics tend to be rather modest and quiet. There are exceptions, but generally if they’re not quiet and modest at first, the work seems to make them that way. And skeptical. But not egoistic. There’s no way to bullshit your way into looking good on a mechanical repair job, except with someone who doesn’t know what you’re doing.

Substitute the word “mechanic” with “employee” in the above quote and you get a good picture of many American workplaces. The American corporate system—intentionally or unintentionally—encourages employees to make themselves look good rather than uncovering and eliminating problems that block the path to quality.

Humility and sincere introspection are prerequisites for connecting with quality. Humility allows you to connect with that internal goal, because you’re no longer focused on the ego-fulfilling pursuit of a goal that exists outside yourself. The here and now, inside each of us, is where we find that “challenging spirit” that keeps us challenging the status quo.


Contrary to initial concerns that Americans wouldn’t be receptive to the “spiritual” approach to TQM, we managed to make a connection (based on our post-seminar survey results). The American managers’ reaction bolstered my confidence that corporate America is ready to give humility a chance. Seven years and hundreds of seminars later, I know it’s true.

To the Japanese, humility and reflection is as natural and invisible as the air we breathe. The need for a reflective workforce in developing a Total-Quality culture was so blatantly obvious to the Japanese president that he took it for granted. So the president’s observation that a “challenging mind” was missing among the ranks of American managers was very perceptive. Our solution was to institute the ongoing practice of reflection to make it part of the company’s DNA.

It’s not so difficult to create the awareness among employees that TQM is spiritual in nature. It’s much more difficult to nurture the culture. But you have to start somewhere. Creating a reflective workforce requires removal of certain destructive cultural and organizational obstacles. And it begs two important questions that will be covered in future posts: what are the obstacles to nurturing an egoless quality mindset in corporate America? And how does leadership go about removing these obstacles?

Copyright © Tim Sullivan, 2008

4 responses to “Zen and the Art of Total Quality

  1. TQM really takes me back. When done right, it is an effective tool (I always thought), but the problem was that in most instances it was executed poorly (at least every place I worked).

    Well said.

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Jeevan. Your comment inspired some reflection on my part since the message wasn’t intended to be about TQM. My bad for not being clear. (Rereading the piece, I understand why you would think it was.) My intended message was that corporate America neglects the “soft” spiritual side of management. We don’t cover the basics that allow our systems to work. Replace “TQM” in the above article with any management nomenclature–MBO, TPS, Lean, Six Sigma, Kaizen, TP Management–the same message applies.

    Japanese managers laugh at the catchy names we give to the latest “next best thing”. They think all the fads are redundant, which makes sense because most Japanese managers see the basics as the same whatever management strategy you chose. The “basics” to them mean leaders who walk in the moccasins of associates; a desire by employees for self-improvement and growth; a willingness by employees to reflect and think; and the discipline to engage in data-driven problem solving on an ongoing basis.

    Americans love systems, technology, techniques and fancy tools. But as a culture we’re uncomfortable with employing the “emotional” strategies for getting the most out of people. (An exception that comes to mind is Southwest Airlines.) It’s as if we learned nothing from the Hawthorne studies, precious research that I believe has stood the test of time.

    TQM (including “lean”, “kaizen”, “Six Sigma”, etc) has been misunderstood and milked beyond recognition. An old mentor called these fads “alphabet-soup”. I think most management strategies are made out to be a lot more complicated than they have to be. The great Japanese companies are focused on simplicity and mastering the basics.

    Most companies can achieve dramatic gains by mastering the basics. Without a foundation, the high-tech-leading-edge-state-of-the-art-cool-stuff doesn’t work.

    Sorry for rambling–Tim

  3. As an afterthought, how about we start a new alphabet-soup management fad of our own and call it “MTB Management”(= “Master-The-Basics” Management) Whaddaya think? 🙂

  4. Wow, great read, Tim. In my world (science), I think the #1 thing that would help managers is if they actually stopped and REALLY thought about what it was they were doing, what their jobs were, their goals and the goals of those they manage. Few of our managers were ever trained in management, but their high-tech degrees can give them an ego that makes them believe they can do anything – especially something as “simple” as management. Humility, and an inner drive to do their management part of their job the best they can, would go a long way in improving our lot. And actually, I suspect this attitude and need is not limited to just scientists.

    Thanks for the thought inspirations here.


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