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Case Study of Empowering Civil Servant Secretaries with TQM

by Ron Kurtus (updated 21 November 2022)

Total Quality Management (TQM) is concerned with satisfying the customers. That task is often not possible unless the workforce is productive and efficient. But increasing worker effectiveness can often be a problem. For example, in an office environment, many managers complain about the quality of work they get from their secretaries.

This problem seems even greater among government workers or civil servants. A method to improve the effectiveness of the workforce by empowering and allowing them more of a role in improving their processes.

The following material is a case study of an effort made to improve the performance of civil servant secretaries working for the U.S. Air Force, through the use of Total Quality Management (TQM) process improvement. Their role in improving their working conditions and work process was a form of empowerment.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.

Began improvement effort

In 1989, the U.S. Department of Defense issued an edict to reduce costs and improve the quality of defense projects through the use of Total Quality Management. This applied to both Air Force personnel and civilians working for the Air Force.

Process Improvement Teams

One of the suggested methods in the Air Force was to form various Process Improvement Teams to define a problem area, find its source, and then improve the process.

Secretary-supervisor team

Since secretary performance was an issue among managers in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Programs in the Air Force's Space Division in Los Angeles, California, we formed a Process Improvement Team to work on the problem.

This team consisted of secretaries and supervisors. Its mission was to try to improve the various processes involved in the secretaries' jobs. The SDI Programs consisted of over 300 military and civilian personnel, so there were a substantial number of civil servant secretaries involved.

This team was to meet for one hour, once a week to achieve the improvement goals.

Met to improve processes

In the first meeting of a group of secretaries and supervisors, we defined the ground rules for these meetings. It was to take turns, avoid personal criticisms and aim for improvement of processes for everyone involved.

The team was given an overview of the TQM method for improving a process, which consists of outlining the steps involved and then trying to eliminate wasteful or unnecessary actions.

Defining scope of the problem

Next, we had a session to determine the scope of the problem.

The supervisors had complaints about secretaries being slow, inefficient, unmotivated, and error-prone.

The secretaries felt they were over-worked, underpaid and not appreciated. A bigger problem was the lack of communication and clear directions as to what they were supposed to do in many situations.

We listed the various major tasks the secretaries perform, defined the steps they go through and stated who they interfaced with. Then we planned to brainstorm on how to remove bottlenecks and improving the process.

Supervisors lose interest

Unfortunately, the number of supervisors dropped off dramatically with each meeting, until soon none were participating.

This really pointed to the problem that supervisors felt that spending their time trying to improve the output from secretaries was not as valuable as "putting out the fires" required in their jobs.

In retrospect, it is probably true that such a process improvement effort was not that valuable to them. The question is: Should managers have to spend time to better define jobs and communication issues? Or is that something that Human Resources and Training should handle?

Worked on solutions

The secretaries and an occasional supervisor met every week to try to improve the secretary-supervisor process. The biggest problem was to keep it from being a gripe session and try to propose some valid solutions. This was especially difficult, since the secretaries had the impression that management really didn't care about their concerns and the fact that most supervisors were not present to provide their input.

Recommended improvements

The major result of the Process Improvement Team was to recommend a title change for the job from Secretary to Administrative Assistant. This was justified because the job had been expanded from simply typing and filing to knowing how to use word processors and spreadsheets on the computer, as well as other software.


Although, it sounded trivial, the secretaries liked the change. It was also a case of the secretaries having a role in their own improvement. They felt somewhat empowered in the changes.

Also, a list of recommended improvements concerning attitudes, communications and method for giving assignments was distributed to all managers and supervisors in the Program Office. It did give some supervisors pause to think about their communications, but in general, it is unlikely it really changed anything.

Luncheon with role models

Finally, we had a luncheon for all the secretaries (administrative assistants) to let them know we were trying to improve their role and working conditions.

There were guest speakers, including a number of women who had started as low-level secretaries and had worked their way up to well-paying management positions. This was to inspire the women and show that there was the possibility to advance in their careers. The meeting ended with a talk from one of the few female Generals in the Air Force.

I was proud of the luncheon and the euphoria afterwards. I don't know how long it lasted, though, before reality sunk in and things got back to "normal."

Regret and lesson learned

One regret I have about this experience—and this was a mistake—is that we did not use any before-and-after measurements of performance and attitudes. I also learned that changing attitudes is difficult and often just does not work.


The Air Force's SDI Programs made an effort to improve the performance and working conditions of their secretaries through the use of a process improvement team. Their participation in the process was a form of empowerment in their jobs.

The result was mixed and probably not long-term. But it was an effort in the right direction.

Everyone is important

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