Lessons Learned

Tom Malone brings a corporate approach to the public sector

The phrase “people power” routinely punctuates Tom Malone’s conversation. Malone, 69, is the retired president and chief operating officer of Milliken & Co., who in 1983 became the first non-family member to ever hold that job. He remains an enthusiastic evangelist for the power of belief, whether it’s shared by a football team, a corporation or a community.

“Americans like measurement,” he says. “They like the competition and awards. They like having heroes, and they like being heroes.”

Malone tapped into that characteristic in the American id, carving out an impressive 36-year career with Milliken, before retiring in 2002 to LaGrange with his wife, Pat. Not one to sit idly by, he was involved in community efforts to lure Kia Motors Corporation to west Georgia, and three years ago embarked on the next phase of his retirement, developing a community-wide initiative, Safety Umbrella for City County Excellence thru Six Sigma (SUCCESS). The SUCCESS program employs principles of Total Quality Management (TQM), which Malone introduced to Milliken in the early 1980s.

SUCCESS resulted from a friend’s challenge to become involved in addressing the national healthcare crisis. But Malone decided to be more than a mouthpiece for a cause. “I really wanted to see if we would be able to apply the same principles we used at Milliken in the public sector,” he says.

Malone contacted officials in the seven major public sectors – healthcare, education (kindergarten through 12), local colleges, city government, county government, law enforcement/public safety, and parks and recreation – as well as the heads of LaGrange’s seven Milliken plants. Pairing representatives from each sector with a mentor from one of the Milliken plants, SUCCESS opted to focus its efforts on increasing safety rather than trying to define “quality” or some other attribute.

“Everyone wants to be safe,” Malone says. “It’s measurable, cost effective, and not subjective.”

The program’s first year was devoted almost completely to education, retraining and re-educating employees in safety practices. Each sector’s team and its mentoring plant had to prove their progress at “sharing rallies” held, at first, every 90 days (now held twice yearly).

It’s not just SUCCESS participants who are seeing results. When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) performed audits of all the teams it found that West Georgia Health System’s recordable incident (accident) rate was 4.82 percent for 2007, lower by almost half the national average for hospitals, which is 9.2 percent. Auditors noted everything from better patient lifts to fewer needle sticks (of employees) to improved lighting on the hospital campus. OSHA was so impressed that they said they’d like to see the program duplicated in communities statewide.

“I thought it would take five years to see results, but we’ve reached many of our goals in just two-and-a-half years,” Malone says. “We’ve found that the learning curve has been shorter because our safety teams have had Milliken (mentors) to look at.”

Malone’s optimistic nature makes him a Total Quality natural. The third of 11 children in his family, Malone grew up on a farm in south Mississippi hearing such one-liner lessons as “Cain’t never could” and “The harder you work the luckier you get.”

“The thing was,” he says, “I believed it!” His football coach at Pearl River College, T.D. “Dobie” Holden, remains an unforgettable figure in Malone’s life. “He taught me I could do whatever I wanted to do,” Malone says. “Even today when I’m faced with a problem, I’ll ask myself, ‘What would Dobie do?’”

Harnessing that belief, Malone graduated from Georgia Tech and earned his doctorate, then found a perfect career fit with Milliken, where he thrived. In 1989, due in large part to Malone’s leadership, the U.S. Department of Commerce recognized Milliken’s achievements by awarding it the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

For Malone, past accomplishments simply serve as a reminder of what can still be achieved. He’s already looking forward to expanding the reach of SUCCESS. “The meaningful story is the ‘people power’ of our area of Georgia and the quality/economic impact these people are having in making our dreams a reality!”

Categories: Influential Georgians