Roger Hale is the former president and CEO of Tennant, an industry-leading manufacturer of industrial and commercial floor maintenance equipment, and a member of Winning Workplaces’ Board of Directors. Under his leadership, Tennant focused on the needs of employees and customers and undertook a major quality initiative. Roger has written several books on quality issues, including Quest for Quality: How One Company Put Theory to Work. In this interview, he discusses the relationship between workplace best practices and quality management.

During your tenure at Tennant, you put together a major quality initiative. What was the impetus this initiative?
The impetus really started in 1978 and 1979. These were blow-out years in manufacturing. Demand was high, and we were having trouble just keeping up with demand. At the same time, the Japanese industry was beginning to gain momentum. We were concerned about improving production efficiency and we discovered that the quality wasn’t very good on a lot of the stuff we were shipping.

About that same time, I went to visit some customers in Japan to ask them how they liked our biggest sweeping machine. They told me that they liked the machine but there were some oil leaks. When I returned, I looked into the matter and found out that, in fact, we did have oil leaking in very small amounts, but nobody was complaining about it. That alerted me to the fact that the Japanese had a whole different way of looking at quality than we did. That got us going and we got in touch with Phil Crosby who was just launching his career as a quality consultant. I think we were one of his first clients as an independent consultant. That launched our quality initiative.

What kinds of changes did you implement as part of your quality initiative?
The real heart of quality management is to get worker involvement at all levels. I don’t mean just factory workers but getting all workers involved in improving their jobs.

We used to hold quality seminars and would invite Japanese visitors. They would also visit other companies in the area that were moving in this direction like 3M and Honeywell. Around 1981, the delegation was led by a CEO of a big shipyard in Japan, and he gave an eloquent speech in which he said that the real purpose of the Japanese quality movement is to improve the life of the ordinary Japanese worker. This was a very interesting statement because it wasn’t just to produce better products at a better price or with fewer defects, but to really get workers involved in what they were doing. That not only led to better products, better outcomes and more efficiency, but it also led to employees really beginning to enjoy their jobs because they had a voice in what was going on and their opinions were listened to and respected.

The essence of Total Quality Management (TQM) is to really start to involve people who are familiar with the work in organizing the work. We did that with groups in our assembly line, call centers, and elsewhere. Employees would come up with suggestions on what improvements to make so they could do their jobs better. We would implement those changes, and they were right. Employees were much more satisfied with their work because they weren’t just drones doing something that someone else told them to do.

How did you solicit feedback from the employees? 
We did a lot of training at all levels. We had our own internal training people work with us to organize formats for training sessions. As executives, we took on the role of training, and we conducted classes on various aspects of the work that was going on in the company. The result was that we learned a lot more about what was going on by talking with the people who were doing the work. Employees felt better because they were beginning to have a voice in what was going on.

At the supervisory level, we would conduct work groups that would talk about the particular task that the work group had to deal with and what they could do to improve it. They would then implement the changes and the result was that our quality level rose dramatically.

This was a major outcome because we were threatened by some new competition. Toyota, in a remote division of their company, had decided to get into the power sweeper business. This was a terrifying prospect for us because we were aware that Toyota had literally wiped out the American lift-truck industry and our equipment wasn’t that far removed from the lift truck industry. Being able to match the Japanese on quality was a key to our survival.

So what were the results of the initiative in terms of cost and sales?
All during that period we had solid, but modest growth. We were not in an explosive growth industry, but we were certainly keeping up with general manufacturing companies. Recognize that at that time a lot of American manufacturing companies were failing. We, on the other hand, were surviving quite well. I left the company six years ago, but the company got through the last recession with only a slight drop in earnings. We continued to make money and continued to raise the dividend which the company has done now for over 35 years.

What would you say is the relationship between people-friendly workplace practices and improving quality?
All of these things are interrelated. The fact that management was sincerely displaying an interest in what workers did, conveying that from the top down and looking at their work teams as partners led to more ideas and better quality. We had relatively little employee turnover compared to other companies so there is a good partnership between management and the employees in terms of a place to work, what the conditions are like, etc. That’s why we ended up on FORTUNE magazine’s 100 Best Place to Work list.

One of the results of all that was we continued to be the preeminent player in our particular niche of industrial and commercial floor cleaning equipment. We bought a commercial floor cleaning company in the 80s, and we put in some quality management there. That enabled us to continually gain market position in the commercial floor cleaning business. We managed to grow and increase our position in the marketplace and all that time remained a very good place to work.