Saturday, October 23, 2004
1998: Feigenbaum brothers help China in market quest
Feigenbaum brothers help China in market quest
Preaching the gospel of quality
Sunday, November 22, 1998
By Bill Densmore
Special to The Berkshire Eagle
Flashback to 1980: Americans awake to the fact that Japan has emerged
as an industrial powerhouse, challenging U.S. economic supremacy. To
their surprise, an American expert at "total quality management," W.
Edwards Deming, is identified as the key apostle leading Japan's
Flash forward to approximately 2014: Americans wake up to the fact
that China has emerged as an industrial and trading powerhouse, with
the world's largest consumer market. To their surprise, two brothers
from Pittsfield, Mass., preachers of "total quality control," are
identified as key figures in China's success.
Sound farfetched? Not to the brothers Feigenbaum. At age 78 and 73,
respectively, engineer Armand V. "Val" Feigenbaum and his brother,
Donald S. Feigenbaum, may well be able to claim they helped China
emerge from agrarian communism to become the world's most robust
market and the most aggressive challenger yet to U.S. and European
In October, Armand embarked on a 10-day trip to China at the
invitation of that nation's government. He says China is the "new
"In 15 years or less, I expect to see Chinese-made automobiles outside
this window," he says, gesturing to Park Square. "I don't think
realize that would be possible from a country that generated toys and
But he says China has the natural and human resources and the
commitment to total customer satisfaction to deliver better products
and services than its worldwide competition.
Already, he says, one third of TV sets sold in the United States are
now Chinese made.
The brothers are talking about China, total quality and their company,
General Systems, in an interview in their third-floor offices at the
Berkshire Common. The offices are Spartan and tidy -- all utility, no
show. The brothers themselves wear dark suits and polished loafers.
An early prototype X-ray tube -- a vestige of Armand's days as senior
production executive at post-World War II-era General Electric Co. --
sits on a coffee table.
The Feigenbaums founded General Systems in 1968 after each left a
promising career in far-flung GE operations. They returned to their
native Pittsfield, they say, because they wanted to be in a place that
exemplified the work ethic they had seen in their grandfather, an
early GE manager, and which lacked the distractions of modern urban
"We wanted a region that had a respect for engineering technology -- a
history of engineering success in papermaking, iron ore, electrical
engineering and semiconductors -- without being oppressive in terms of
overcrowding," Armand says. "This area had that."
They have not been disappointed. Employee turnover has been minimal
through the years. The brothers don't discuss revenues and are
imprecise about employment levels. But they indicate they have more
than 200 employees worldwide.
They worried this year that they had made a wrong decision as the
city, government and General Electric wrangled over environmental
cleanup. But Donald thinks light manufacturing and information
businesses will increasingly find Pittsfield attractive.
Aside from occasional and mostly unheralded acts of philanthropy, the
brothers are not household names in Pittsfield. But their client list
reads like a who's who of American industrial might: Auto and steel
makers, railroads, banks, farm implementers and international
Listening to the Feigenbaums describe their business -- Armand largely
leads with important emphasis and examples from his brother -- is to
hear a smooth stream of anecdotes and metaphors wrapped around kernels
of insight born of three decades advising a diverse collection of
They can chronicle the ills and cures applied to the railroad and
banking industries -- comparing derailments to loan losses -- and
Both engineers, the brothers insist that what they provide is an
ever-evolving "technology" of corporate change which has as its aim a
focus on total customer satisfaction. From this goal, they say, arises
a litany of requirements for measuring business processes -- from
manufacturing to human-resources management.
They eschew with a vengeance the word "consulting" placed before the
noun. "We don't feel comfortable just giving advice," says Donald.
When they enter a new corporate environment to "install" their
"technology," the first thing General Systems engineers do is
inventory all of the ways that people and materials are being used
inefficiently or squandered and tally up what it's costing the
company. Then they go to work teaching management and workers how to
change their ways.
Applying a razor-like focus on customer satisfaction, they say the
business gradually sheds extra costs resulting from lack of focus.
In the end, the Feigenbaums say they can prove that the cost savings
realized are many times the healthy fees they charge for their
The have distilled their "technology" of quality down to what they
call 12 proprietary "management operating systems" which are
customized to a particular client's needs, turning management into a
science, not an art.
The 12 systems -- which go beyond "quality" as a mantra -- deal with
such things as new product or service development, material flow and
logistics, asset and information management, financial, marketing and
operations effectiveness. They've also developed 10 "benchmarks" of
"We're unique," says Donald. "There's nobody who has developed an
engineering approach, a technology of quality."
Although they may have been at it longer than anyone else, the
Feigenbaums are not the first -- nor will they be the last -- people
to preach the gospel of "quality" to the world's businesses. And what
appears unique is their ability to evolve the pitch as they learn what
works -- or perhaps to some extent as they learn what is required to
satisfy their corporate customers.
Although the brothers are little known in their native Pittsfield,
they say they are treated as celebrities on their now-frequent trips
"It's bizarre," Armand says. "We are interviewed on the radio and
television stations. It's like we're rock stars."
The reason, he says, is that China's government has turned his 1951
book, "Total Quality Control" (written before Armand reached age 30)
into the "Bible" of Chinese business progress.
Because China does not abide by international copyright conventions,
the brothers have no idea how many copies of the book are circulating,
but they say that every Chinese manager they meet knows of it. It has
been translated by now into 22 languages.
Quality awards named after the Feigenbaums are awarded in Singapore,
Quebec, the state of Massachusetts and by the American Society of
Actually, the Feigenbaums are among at least four gurus of quality,
says Michael Morton, a producer for CCM Productions near Washington,
D.C., which produced a 1980 program for NBC on total quality in Japan.
"And each them thinks their approach is the gospel," he says. "Any one
of the four of them would tell you that, even though the four of them
are very much the same. It's their nature."
The program Morton worked on, "If the Japanese Can, Why Can't We?"
documented how Deming, a physicist working as a post-World War II
reconstruction consultant to Japanese industry, started the notion of
"total quality management" and helped Japan achieve an industrial
To honor Deming, Japanese industry began in 1952 awarding an annual
Deming Prize for industrial excellence. But until the 1980 broadcast,
Deming was a virtual unknown to the U.S. public. After that, he was
famous, courted by the chairman of Ford Motor Co., among others. His
name became almost synonymous with a business quest for quality.
Deming died in 1993.
William Ratcliff, administrator of the not-for-profit W. Edwards
Deming Institute in Washington, D.C., says "Deming was very much
addressing how you manage a company, not in the specialist sense, but
does it to meet the needs of the world, even though his starting point
was a very technical one being a physicist, mathematician and
But comparing the approaches of Deming and the Feigenbaums can be
tricky. Although the Feigenbaums might have seemed more focused on
dissecting processes rather than managing people, in recent interviews
Armand has talked "passionate, disciplined and populist" management
and believing in people.
And the Feigenbaums also argue that numerical quotas are a poor way to
motivate workers to produce customer-satisfying products.
Claire Crawford-Mason, a founding editor of People magazine who
co-produced the 1980 show who has become somewhat of a disciple of
Deming's philosophy, says "The Feigenbaums certainly are distinguished
people, but we are talking about two different universes. Deming had a
complete philosophy of management. The Feigenbaums work at a very
sophisticated level, making much-needed improvements in manufacturing
and the delivery of services -- huge contributions -- but they are
dealing entirely with the tangible world."
"When Deming was still alive," she says, were managing boxes on the
organization charts, and Deming was telling people how to manage the
white spaces between the boxes -- the relationships."
The Feigenbaums would not say they ever focused just on the boxes. But
as they've matured their philosophy, they've realized the importance
of white spaces to even their perception of their home town.
"This part of the world is never going to be the lowest-cost place, or
have a resource base, or be easy to get in and out of," says Armand.
"But it can have human resources -- and that's what quality is about."
The brothers travel the world together, play tennis and golf together
and live together not far from their downtown office. Their father was
an accountant and a grandfather was an early GE-Pittsfield manager.
They share an eternal affection for their late mother, endowed a
public-lecture series at Pittsfield's Temple Anshe Amunim in her name,
and both play classical piano, as she did.
As patrons of music, literature and the arts generally, they also
funded the creation of a writer's room at the Berkshire Athenaeum.
Donald serves on the boards of Berkshire Bank, the Athenaeum, Hancock
Shaker Village, the Berkshire Museum, the Chamber of Commerce of the
Berkshires, and he is a corporator of Berkshire Medical Center.
At Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., the brothers have made numerous
donations and a building and lecture series, the Feigenbaum Forum, are
named in their honor. Both have degrees from Union.
And earlier this month, the University of Massachusetts Medical School
in Worcester announced receipt of $1 million from the Feigenbaums to
endow a faculty professorship to study ways to improve the quality of
patient care in American medicine.
As medicine is increasingly viewed as a business, the Feigenbaums have
come to view it as a new frontier for a systematic approach to
Besides, when both required treatment at UMass/Worcester a few years
ago, they were amazed "that somehow they had built into that
organization a sense of respect for the people coming there."
© 1998 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and Pittsfield Publications, Inc.
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