The University Record, July 6, 1993

Kahn: ‘Quality’ really isn’t anything new, has roots at U

Total quality is not a “foreign body” to higher education, but rather actually owes it roots to the U-M, where much of the early research on quality initiatives was done, according to Robert L. Kahn.

Kahn told the Regents at their June meeting that there are two main “bloodlines” in research on quality, one involving statistical control and the other focused on behavioral science research in organizations.

The quest for quality initially focused on statistical controls used to check final products to determine if they were uniform. It was found, however, that if variations were not due to employees’ work or equipment, the statistical approach could not solve the problem, said Kahn, who is professor emeritus of psychology and of health services management and research scientist emeritus, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research.

Behavioral science research on organizations, Kahn explained, produced four findings:

  • The group, especially work groups, is an important factor in performance and decision-making.

  • Empowerment, the sharing of power in decision-making, can enhance the ability of an organization to influence its members.

  • The concept of the customer leads to a discussion of roles and the interdependence of roles.

  • A move to quality cannot be made through a series of isolated events that can be accomplished one at a time, but rather requires a change in the organization’s culture.

    The concept of customer, Kahn said, “is the central element in any quality movement, and that is a very difficult idea for faculty to accept. Each member of an organization, from top to bottom, interacts with others. Each in turn does work upon which others depend.”

    Kahn explained that “customers” tend to agree on what they need and want. Conventional organizations, such as a university, are not good at describing what customers want, resulting in role conflicts.

    The “main antidote” to this conflict, Kahn said, “is improved, direct communications built on trust and respect that will buffer the differences.”

    Kahn said that when he began his research on the quality movement he was skeptical. “I’ve seen management fads come and go. However, now I’m increasingly hopeful. I’m optimistic about what the M-Quality initiative can do for the University. It is a hybrid of great power and vision, and our University has much to gain from it.”