June 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Applying Total Quality Management in Cooperative Extension

This article examines the use of Total Quality Management (TQM) to increase customer satisfaction in South Carolina's Agriculture Service Laboratory. First, a TQM model commonly used in service industries is explained. Then the techniques that were applied in the laboratory and the resulting outcomes are examined and discussed. The central theme of this article is how to increase the laboratory's focus on the customer.

Lawrence D. Fredendall
Assistant Professor
Department of Management
Internet address: flawren@clemson.edu

Robert M. Lippert
Lab Director
Department of Agricultural Chemical Services
Agriculture Service Laboratory

Clemson University
Clemson, South Carolina


Most employees in the Cooperative Extension system recognize that the rapid changes in public demands will require significant alterations in the way we conduct our business. As part of these changes, we need to develop innovative program delivery methods (Taylor-Powell & Richardson, 1990).

Total quality management (TQM) is an approach commonly used in private business to focus the firm on improving service to the customer. TQM improves service delivery by striving to continuously improve customer satisfaction by improving the service delivery process. TQM is not a single technique or a collection of techniques, rather TQM is a philosophy of management. There are numerous techniques developed and extensively implemented in private business, but one important component of TQM is that it provides a vision that focuses each member of the firm on improving customer service.

TQM may be a useful approach for the Cooperative Extension Service to use in developing innovative program delivery methods and adequately servicing the customer's needs. This paper reports on efforts to implement TQM at a soil analysis laboratory. Before reporting the results, a TQM model used in private service industries and the relevance of this model to the Cooperative Extension Service is described through an example of the soil analysis laboratories in South Carolina.

TQM in the Service Firm

Tenner and DeToro (1992) provide an appropriate model to structure the Extension Service's TQM effort. In Figure 1, the service firm is shown as a system of internal processes. Each process is both a provider of a service and a customer of a prior service. It is important to note that each internal process needs internal performance measures and an identified process owner. The process owner is the lowest level person with authority to make a change in the process. A process measure is a performance measure used to determine whether the process is providing the service as required. This process measure has two purposes. First, it measures effectiveness by determining if the process provides what the customer needs. Second, it provides a baseline to determine if the process is improving.

     |PROCESS|-->|PROCESS|-->|PROCESS|----|---->End Customer
     |   A   |   |   B   |   |   C   |    |      (customer
         |           |           |        |       satisfaction)
        \|/         \|/         \|/      \|/
     -Owner      -Owner      -Owner     Output
     -process    -process    -process   Measure
      measure     measure     measure

     Figure 1. Internal Process

An output measure is a measure of the entire system's performance. It measures the explicit tangible good or service provided. Most services gather and report some type of output measure. An example might be the number of soil analyses returned to the customer within five days. The challenge for the service manager is to ensure that the measures used by the firm evaluate output that actually matters to the customer. The end customer satisfaction measure evaluates the customer's overall satisfaction with the system output. This measure also provides information about how the intangible aspects of the service influence the customer (e.g., how the firm's reputation influences the customer). It is difficult to measure customer satisfaction, but it is necessary to ensure that both the output measures and the internal process measures are appropriate.

Quality in the Extension Service

Many soil analysis laboratories, following the organizational structure of the Extension Services, deliver services through field offices as shown in Figure 2. This structure is necessary to reach out across the state, but it creates a tendency for the central Extension staff (including the soil analysis laboratory) to view the Extension field offices as their external customer and not as internal customers within the Extension Services. To clarify this point, remember that the internal customer is defined as the next process within the same organization, and external customers belong to other organizations. When the provider of the internal service tracks and reports its services as output to the customer, it begins to believe that these internal output measures reflect the end customer's satisfaction. As illustrated in Figure 2, this means that the Agriculture Service Laboratory may view the field office as its customer and tracks output measure "A" instead of output measure "B," so it may lose sight of its end customer--who submitted the soil sample.

 |Submit |--->|Test   |-----|---->|Review    |---|--->End
 |Samples|    |Samples|     |     |& Mail    |   |    Customer
     |            |         |     |Results to|   |  (customer
     |            |         |     |Customer  |   | satisfaction)
     |            |         |          |         |
     |            |         |          |         |
    \|/          \|/       \|/        \|/       \|/
  -Field    -Agriculture  Output    -Field     Output
   Office    Service Lab  Measure    Office    Measure
  -process  -process       "A"      -process    "B"
   measure   measure                 measure

Figure 2. Process Owner Performance Measure

As shown in Figure 2, the lab is also the customer of the county agent who mails the samples to the laboratory. So it is possible that this confusion of internal measures with output measures could be repeated at multiple points within the organization. The result of confusing internal process measures with output measures is that staff may feel they are effectively serving their customer, when end customer satisfaction may actually be very low. This type of structure insulates the laboratory staff from direct feedback from the farmer/customer, and prevents the quantitative gathering of customer satisfaction measures. The separation of the organization's performance measures from its customers requirements is not unique in any U.S. industry. Only recently have most manufacturing and service firms begun to identify customer satisfaction as their firm's primary goal.

TQM: An Extension Example

The following report examines the initial steps to improve customer satisfaction by implementing TQM at the South Carolina Agricultural Service Laboratory in Clemson, South Carolina. One of the major analytical services provided by the Agricultural Service Laboratory is soil testing. Until recently, the lab tested an average of 65,000 soil samples annually. After the lab changed its fee from no charge to $5.00 a sample for its services, the number of samples processed dropped to about 30,000 samples in 1992.

To begin their implementation of TQM, the laboratory decided to first identify what their end customer, the farmer, considered to be important and what their internal customer, the Extension agent, considered to be important. To aid in this effort, they obtained the help of a group of business students who were studying process improvement techniques. The students first interviewed selected field Extension agents about their relationship with the laboratory and their view of why the number of soil samples decreased. Agents felt that the number of samples dropped when the laboratory charged a fee because some farmers were combining samples from larger areas, some homeowners no longer submitted samples, and some farmers were sending samples to private labs to obtain more comprehensive tests. Agents felt the laboratory needed to provide additional tests to effectively compete with the private labs. Finally, some agents felt that the laboratory's reports were not as attractive as some of the private laboratory's reports.

The soil laboratory then cooperated with the students to survey its customers to establish their satisfaction level with their soil tests. The survey was mailed to 500 farmers who currently use the lab's services. Two hundred fifty-two surveys were returned for a response rate of 50.4%. Of these respondents, 97% were pleased with the accuracy and usefulness of the lab's results and recommendations and 92% planned to continue using the service. About 89% of the customers were satisfied with the turnaround time. The survey also asked customers to indicate improvements they wanted. Suggestions included the need for the laboratory to do testing for additional plant nutrients and to improve its report forms. Nearly 18% of those who responded thought the fee of $5.00 per sample was too high.

This information came only from those customers who continued to use the lab's services after the lab began to charge a fee. To evaluate the perceptions of those not currently using the lab's services, the lab staff and the students conducted another survey of 520 farmers who were not using the lab's services. These farmers, identified by the county agents, included both those who previously used the services and those who had never used the lab's services. One hundred surveys were returned for a response rate of 20%. Their major source of dissatisfaction was the length of time it took for the lab to give them the results of their soil analysis. Part of this problem may have been due to out-moded equipment which was replaced in 1992.

To determine which part of the process was susceptible to the delay turning around the soil analysis, the students prepared a detailed flow chart of the lab's internal process. A flow chart is a tool commonly used with TQM to identify the steps in the process and the length of time to conduct each step. Analysis of this flow chart demonstrated that the lab finished all analysis in two days or less. Extending the flow chart to county Extension offices showed that the transportation time of the samples from the county office to the lab as well as the transit time of the reports back to the county offices could extend the turnaround time up to almost two weeks.

As a next step in the investigation, the students met with some agents who had the shortest turn-around times. The students discovered that these offices submitted samples to the lab using United Parcel Services (UPS) and not fourth class mail as the counties did with longer turn-around times. Also, those counties with the shortest turn-around times printed the final report for the farmer directly from the Extension Service's computer network by using their office personal computers and printers. They could then send the reports to the local farmer within hours of it being completed by the laboratory.

The complaints about the quality of the laboratory's report form required more analysis. First, the laboratory developed two additional report forms and sent surveys to 100 farmers who repeatedly used the laboratory's service to evaluate their perceptions of the different report formats. The response rate was 34%, but the respondents indicated they saw little difference between the report formats. Follow-up to determine why there was no perceived difference between the formats established that none of the formats were as attractive as the private laboratory reports. Analysis of the private laboratory report forms showed that differences in formats were that the private laboratories used color printers and graphics and that they indicated a specific yield goal for various crops selected by the customer.

Responding to the Customer

Given this data, it was clear that customers considered the accuracy and usefulness of the lab's test results to be high. The customer's perception of the lab's services however, were predominantly shaped by two other factors. First, many farmers found that the turn-around time for some counties (up to nearly two weeks) was excessive. Second, some farmers evaluated the laboratory's report quality in part by the appearance of its format and its comprehensiveness compared to the private laboratory's reports. Examining Figure 2 shows that the laboratory does not completely control either of these factors. Improvement in these two areas, which is now being implemented, will greatly enhance the delivery of the lab's services and likely increase customer satisfaction and the number of lab users.


The Agricultural Service Laboratory first recognized the need to consider the end customer's satisfaction with its services. It then began a TQM evaluation by surveying end customers and internal customers. The surveys showed that the laboratory needs to take certain steps to improve customer satisfaction. First, it needs to continue implementing the means of optimizing turn-around time for laboratory reports. Second, it needs to evaluate how to improve the appearance of its reports.

TQM is a process of continuous improvement that is applicable to the entire Cooperative Extension network. The use of customer surveys is a valuable starting point for any TQM effort. It helps to ensure that change is directed towards satisfying the customer. Also, it encourages continual change. As one improvement is made, another need is identified and the search to develop a method of meeting this need or removing a cause of dissatisfaction begins.


Taylor-Powell, E., & Richardson, B., (1990). Issues programming changes Extension. Journal of Extension, 28(Summer), 16-17.

Tenner, A. R., & DeToro, I. J. (1992). Total quality management. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.