When "Good Enough" Isn't Good Enough,
Core Ideas of Total Quality

© by Ends of the Earth Learning Group 1998

Linda Turner and Ron Turner

Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven References and Copying Rights

The second key idea of Total Quality is the "adoption of a customer focus." A customer focus means that continuous improvement efforts are measured by how well customer needs are met. This is true not just for an organization's external customers, but also for each internal customer within the organization.

An internal customer is defined as someone who depends on you to do your job correctly in order for them to their job correctly. The acid test for determining if someone is your internal customer is to ask, "Can I mess up this person's job?"

A supervisor passing a dictated audio tape to a secretary plays the role of supplier to customer. The secretary will not be able to accurately type the dictation unless the supervisor spoke clearly enough in the first place.

Once adopted, a customer focus requires each person to do three things.

  1. Identify both external and internal customers and contact them.

  2. Assess customer needs.

  3. Institute a feedback mechanism that lets the suppliers know how well they are doing from the customer's perspective.

    This information becomes the basis for measuring the success of continuous improvement efforts.

    Customer needs are not the same thing as customer demands. Sometimes customers are mistaken about the best way for taking care of a need, and therefore ask for something that is not in their best interest. For instance, a mechanic may ask for a particular auto part not knowing there is a higher quality alternative at a lower price. Assessing customer needs means getting at the root needs behind customer requests.

    A customer focus, at first glance, would seem to be universally accepted. How could anyone reject it? After all, as Deming puts it, "Profit in business comes from repeat customers that boast about your product and service . . . " (Deming, 1986, page 141.)

    A customer focus, however, runs counter to many of the most honored tenets of "Yankee horse trading" which are a fundamental part of American business practices. Having a customer focus means rejecting the notion of Caveat Emptor ("Let the buyer beware.") It runs counter to economic traditions which have always maintained that if people can get away with lying and/or stealing, they will do so.

    In essence adopting a customer focus means that the supplier is looking out for the best interests of the customer. That holds true for internal as well as external customers.

    Once adopted, a customer focus will fundamentally change the relationships between people. The most important person to satisfy will stop being the boss and start being the customer. Feedback from internal customers will go directly to internal suppliers, bypassing supervisors in most cases.

    In traditionally run organizations, workers never meet their external customers. In Total Quality organizations, it is common for workers to visit customer sites so that workers have a better idea of how they impact the final customer. The same principle holds true for interacting with internal customers. In many cases, internal customers and suppliers have never met except through memos and the mailroom. Where they have met, there has been little feedback regarding either the needs of internal customers or how well those needs are being met. Once workers get to see and understand exactly how they impact internal customers, they are in a far better position to start meeting those customer needs.

    We recommend that the Golden Rules and Customer-Supplier Interview questions be adopted for dealing with internal suppliers and customers. By having ongoing recurrent interviews, many process improvements will result.


    SUPPLIER RULES: Suppliers recognize that quality is defined from the customer's perspective.

    1. Suppliers will ask customers what they need, and how well those needs are being met.

    2. Success will be measured by how well customer needs are being met and not by what the suppliers want to give.

    3. Suppliers will listen to customer feedback without becoming defensive.

    CUSTOMER RULES: Customers recognize that suppliers choose how and when to focus their improvement efforts.

    1. Customers are responsible for giving clear precise requirements to suppliers.

    2. Customers will not blame suppliers for problems, but rather will recognize that systems need improvement in order to improve overall quality.

    3. Customers will recognize that just because they ask for something doesn't mean that suppliers will be able to meet those needs.

    4. Customers will give feedback in a manner chosen by suppliers.

    JOINT RULES Customers and suppliers are working on behalf of the Final Customer.

    1. The phrase, "That's not my problem!" won't be used by either customers or suppliers.

    2. Priority to the "final customer" will be given whenever an internal supplier faces a conflict between taking care of an internal and external customer.

    3. Customers and suppliers will interact with respect and courtesy.

    4. Both customers and suppliers will keep in mind that they are part of the same team.
    Copyright (1998) by Ends of the Earth Learning Group. All right reserved.


    • For customers who want to get their needs better met. (In these cases, the suppliers should ask their questions first.)

    • For suppliers who feel attacked when customers "complain" about problems. (In these cases, the customers should ask their questions first.)

    • For suppliers who want to be proactive before problems arise. (In these cases, the suppliers should ask their questions first.)
      • Identify the "product" or "service" about which you want to talk. (What is it that is being supplied to the internal customer?)

      • Decide who will ask questions first.


      1. What are the problems with what I am doing? ("Am I making mistakes, taking too long, giving you something you don't need, not giving you something that you do need, etc.?")

      2. What happens when you don't get what you need? "For instance, if I made mistakes, what kind of rework do you have to do?" Or "If I am late, what are the consequences for you?")

      3. What could I do for you that would most improve your situation?

      4. (Optional) Would you walk me through your work process so I can understand how my work affects you? (This is called job shadowing.)


      1. What kind of feedback do you want from me? ("Do you want suggestions for improvement? Do you want to hear about any mistakes I find? Do you want to know when things are going well?")

      2. How often and in what manner do you want feedback? ("Do you want feedback verbally or in writing? Do you want feedback in a graph? Do you want to know every time you made a mistake, or do you want me to give you feedback just once a week or month?")

      3. What kind of feedback do you want me to avoid? ("Do I give you more feedback than you want? Do I make you defensive?")

    Last, with a customer focus, continuous improvement is measured in terms of how things are getting better for customers. This is heresy for most organizations whose focus is on keeping costs down rather than on improving things for customers.

    When individuals first hear about the concept of internal customers, there is a great temptation to say, "Great, someone will start treating me as a customer for a change." Then they complain to their internal suppliers about the lousy service they have been receiving and become angry when the internal suppliers don't instantly improve things.

    These individuals don't yet have a customer focus. Instead they have a "me" focus that has forgotten that the individual should be measuring success in terms of their own customers. The primary responsibility of everyone is to ask external and internal customers, "What can I do to improve?" Improving things for those customers which should be the ultimate measure of success.

    This notion of a customer focus is hardest for those organizations that are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as having customers. In health care, there is resistance to calling patients "customers" because there is fear that it sounds like clinicians must then give patients whatever the patients ask for, even when patient requests clearly are not what is best for them.

    For instance, giving drugs to addicts is unacceptable. More subtly, giving antibiotics too freely is also unacceptable, even though patients come to doctors in the hopes of getting some magic drug that will "fix" whatever ails them.

    A customer focus in health care means that success is measured by improvements in meeting patient needs. Giving unnecessary drugs is not meeting needs. But, not having a "magic pill" is also not meeting patient needs and is clearly one of the areas for continuous improvement in health care.

    While it is disturbing for some clinicians to take patient "time" into account, clearly making patients wait for hours in the waiting room causes patient resentment. Clinicians in Total Quality health care facilities start improving scheduling systems so that patient time is not wasted.

    From a patient perspective, what is perhaps even more significant than reduced wait time is that the stereotypical clinicians who are perceived as being arrogant and disrespectful will have to change the way they interact both with patients and staff.

    For instance, sometimes patients ask questions about clinical diagnoses or management options. In the past, clinicians may have been answered with comments like, "If you don't trust me, find another doctor," or "You don't need to worry about those things, that's my job." In a Total Quality environment, all patient questions are answered patiently and with respect.

    In education, teachers have a clear responsibility to look out for the best interests of students even when students sometimes fail to see what is best for them. For that reason, many educators are resistant to calling students their "customers."

    This is a misunderstanding about the meaning of customer focus. In this regard, business must become more like education and health care, rather than vice versa. A customer focus means, "I am looking out for the best interests of my customer." It does not mean, "I will do whatever my customer asks."

    A customer focus in education does not mean giving automatic A's, abandoning standards, or giving students a homework-free course simply because students might ask for that. It does means, however, that teachers have to start asking students, "Was this class worth your time and money?" If the students give "no" as the answer, then it will require educators to start rethinking what they do in the classroom.

    Total Quality in schools should have as a goal students who will start saying, "Thank God it's Monday," instead of students who cheer whenever classes get canceled. For government workers, there usually is no traditional customer who pays for services. Many times the "customers" are actually getting something-for-nothing such as welfare, social security, or building code exceptions. Taking a customer focus will mean looking at things from these "customers" perspectives. That will mean shorter lines, simpler paperwork, and a friendlier overall environment.

    For police agencies, customers are not accused criminals (even though there is a long tradition in police departments of sarcastically referring to criminals as customers). Instead, customers are taxpayers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and others in the criminal justice system. A customer focus will mean identifying what these folks need, and then start measuring how well those needs are being met.

    A customer focus toward internal customers

    A customer focus is a reminder to people about why their organizations exist. Vision and mission statements are simply statements of what a customer focus means for the organization at large.

    Unfortunately many bureaucracies (whether for-profit or not) started out with very good intentions, but then forgot their reasons for existence. Adopting a customer focus is a mechanism for getting everyone in the organization aligned once again around the founding principles.

    When first getting started, organizations are best off deciding precisely how they will measure their success. This is the concrete point where everyone gets to see if the organization is truly adopting a customer focus both toward external and internal customers. These measures bring vision and mission statements to life. Sometimes these statements can be so abstract that they lack concrete meaning.

    Measures of success should be established in four areas:

    1. HOW WELL ARE CUSTOMER NEEDS BEING MET? If there are different kinds of customers, then each kind should be addressed. This should be the primary measure of organizational success.

      Customer satisfaction can be measured through surveys, customer comment cards, focus groups, and interviews. The mechanism that works best will depend upon the nature of the organization. Pretending that increasing or decreasing sales are measures of customer satisfaction is a doomed strategy. There are many reasons for short term gains and losses in sales besides customer satisfaction.

      In addition, future needs of customers must be measured and plans made for dealing with these needs. Last, the organization needs to know how it is doing relative to competition. Many businesses who were doing a good job have gone down the tubes because their competition was doing a better job.


      Employees are internal customers of management. Perhaps more significantly, if a learning environment is not created for employees, they will resist adopting a customer focus and committing to continuous improvement.

      The organization needs to somehow evaluate its overall climate and how employees feel about working in the organization. Usually this is done through some combination of employee surveys, exit interviews, numbers and quality of employee suggestions, etc.


      Key processes need to be identified and results of these process tracked. Over time, if continuous improvement is taking place, then processes should become more efficient. While many organizations may track average production costs and the like, far more meaningful measures will be developed by examining processes in detail.

      Discovering for instance that paperwork which requires only ten minutes of work might nonetheless sit in an office for a week or two is more indicative of how processes operate than to simply look at average cost to process the paperwork.


      Even non-profits should monitor their financial results. Financial results can be measured in terms of financial stability, surpluses, stockholder return, return on investment, or whatever seems appropriate.


    • Individuals should identify their internal and external customers, the needs of those customers, and assess how well needs are being met.

    • An internal customer is someone whose job you can mess up by not doing your job correctly.

    • The Golden Rules and Customer-Supplier Interviews should be the basis for ongoing dialogue between internal suppliers and customers.

    • Individuals should get feedback about performance from customers, not bosses.

    • Continuous improvement should be measured in terms of how well things are getting better for customers.

    • In health care, patients are customers. In education, students are customers. For police departments, taxpayers, attorneys, and judges are customers. And for government bureaucrats, welfare recipients are customers.

    • Vision and mission statements are simply statements of a customer focus for the organization as a whole.

    • Organizational success should be measured in four key areas:

      • The degree to which customer needs being met.
      • Employee morale.
      • Process Efficiency.
      • Financial Results.

    Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven References and Copying Rights