Lesson of "Amadeus": Perfection can be deadly



There's a moment in the movie "Amadeus" that always makes the hairs on the back of my neck bristle. Young Mozart plays the piano before Emperor Joseph II. Salieri, the reigning musician of the day, is in the background. Mozart sits and begins a Salieri score. Then he starts to improvise, and a voluptuous burst of trills and arpeggios fills the air.

I thought about "Amadeus" after re-reading a Newsweek story (March 1992) which quoted Robert D. Knoll of Consumer Reports: "The Americans are building nice average cars but few 'gee-whiz-look-at-this' cars." The Japanese, on the other hand, have "upped the ante in what the experts call the more subtle 'sensory' side of a car's quality," Newsweek claims, such as a "turn-signal lever that doesn't wobble [and] the feel of a climate-control knob."

I offer these observations as an indictment of total quality management as it generally is practiced. Doing things perfectly (Total Quality Management) is important. Doing things well may be ever more important.

Salieri composed "zero defects" music that was deadly. Mozart played Salieri's work flawlessly. But had that been all, none of us would know Mozart's name today. Likewise, in our day, perfectly produced cars that roar to life at 20 below don't win hard-core loyalists -- unless they also score well on the "gee-whiz-look-at-this" scale.

Creativity guru Edward de Bono's latest book, "Sur/Petition: Creating Value Monopolies When Everyone Else is Merely Competing" offers some lessons. He claims there are three stages of business. In the first, "Attention is on the product and on production." That is, get it right. Stage two focuses on the product relative to the competition: "How can we do better or at least keep up?" Stage three, sur/petition (beyond competition), emphasizes "integrating into the complex values of the customer." Huh?

Mr. De Bono illustrates: "The Swiss watch industry invented the quartz movement, but did not use the invention because it felt [it]would kill their existing market. Anyone could use the quartz movement, whereas only the Swiss had the skills to make little cog wheels and balance springs. They were right in their thinking . . . but wrong in their strategy. Watchmakers in Japan and Hong Kong eagerly grabbed the quartz movement, and in one year the sales of Swiss watches dropped by 25 percent.

"What rescued the Swiss watch industry was a very unSwiss concept of the Swatch. . . . [It] signaled that telling time was no longer the most important thing in a watch. A $5 watch tells time every bit as well as a $30,000 watch. The Swatch was not selling time so much as fun and costume jewelry." As Swatch Chairman Nicholas Hayek told the New York Times, "We were convinced that if each of us could add our fantasy and culture to an emotional product, we could beat anybody. Emotions are something that nobody can copy."

Such notions, Alan Ryan writes in the New York Review of Books assessing Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man," are at the heart of commerce. Modern economics, he argues, are the product of "the irrational component in economic behavior that the sociology of [Karl] Marx and [Max] Weber doesn't explain. . . . We do not want only to satisfy our needs for food, shelter, sex and comfort; we much more powerfully wish to establish ourselves as people to be reckoned with. . . . Mankind is much more powerfully driven by the desire for recognition than by desires for a high standard of living."

This is not only the stuff of music and fashion, but also of machine tools and auto parts. For example, in developing the Cyclone Lightning Grinder (an air-powered tool that removes metal burrs from engine parts and other equipment), Ingersoll-Rand worked with the award-winning industrial design firm Group Four to produce an end-user's dream (comfortable, attractive, etc.). Project leader Jim Stryker says he knew he was on the right track when a skeptical distributor, grasping an early prototype, let out a "Wow!"

"I've put 'Wow' on my short list of future new-product criteria," Mr. Stryker told me in earnest.

Manufacturing simplification? Worker participation? Total Quality Management? Sure. Without those essentials, Ingersoll's Cyclone doubtless would have failed to make its dramatic mark. So I'm not dismissing Total Quality Management's principles (though there is much to dismiss in the execution of 90 percent of Total Quality Management programs, which fail to empower workers -- but that's a story for another day). Instead, I am pointing out that from grinding tools in dingy factories to wristwatches and fugues, there's more -- a lot more -- to life than zero defects.

Try to find "gee whiz" and "wow" in your company's 632-page "Guide to Total Quality Management": 2-to-1 (200-to-1 is more like it) they're not there.

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