In W. Edwards Deming’s theories of management, there is a basic tenet that strikes me as immutable: You can’t inspect quality into a product; you must build quality in throughout the production process.
The people who purvey poultry know that. That’s why they’ve been able to enhance their competitive position so much in the last 50 or 60 years.
Some people in the beef industry know it. But others either don’t know it or don’t like it.
You don’t hear as much about Deming now as when his 1986 book Out of the Crisis was fresh. He is credited for helping the Japanese reinvent their industries in the postwar years—transforming “Made in Japan” from a double negative to a double positive. In his book, he lists 14 points important to the success of a business.
I credit the meat scientists at Texas A&M University (TAMU) with introducing Deming to the beef
industry. Beef was losing market share about as quickly as Detroit was, and the TAMU boys began talking about beef as an integrated industry.
At least five of the Deming points apply directly to the beef industry:
- Build quality into a product throughout production.
- End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag alone; instead, try a long-term relationship based on established loyalty and trust.
- Work to constantly improve quality and productivity.
- Drive out fear; create trust.
- Strive to reduce intradepartmental conflicts.
Poultry’s business model. Do you see us making strides in those directions? I see some people within the beef industry trying, but I also see a lot of pushback that has surfaced in the form of the proposed new rules governing cattle marketing.
Let’s get my stance straight from the start. I don’t blame big packers for beef’s loss of market share. I don’t blame imports. I blame beef’s failure to compete with poultry. Poultry’s business model has all those Deming points going. If Messrs. Perdue and Tyson decide their chickens are too fat or too skinny—or, perish the thought, they finally notice the taste is limp—they have the power to change things. Their growers may hate them, but they have little choice except to change when the integrator says they’re missing the mark. Ruthless and cold they may be, but they “build quality into the product throughout production.”
And the chicken growers, while they may hate the bossman, at least get to stay in business.
Real competitors. The integrators have entered into long-term relationships with the people who grow their birds. They apply continuous pressure for improvement, and that Darwinian method has led production costs to shrink while consumer demand expands.
Where they seem to have fallen short—and where I hope we don’t go with the beef industry—is in the “drive out fear, create trust” part. There are a lot of disgruntled former chicken growers out there. But then, the rule of Darwin isn’t that the fairest and nicest survive. It’s the strongest. The best adapted.
- January 2011