HONGKONG lags behind Japan and Western countries in the awareness of the importance of total quality management, says a specialist. ''Total quality management is just at its starting point in Hongkong,'' said American Express International quality director Sidney Yuen, who is on the organising committee of this year's Hongkong Management Association quality award. Mr Yuen noted that the concept had appeared in the territory just four or five years ago and had yet to be incorporated into Hongkong companies. Total quality management places emphasis on leadership and strategic planning to achieve customer satisfaction. Poor leadership was the greatest obstacle to the achievement of quality, said Mr Yuen. He said managers should try to understand customers by talking to them and by listening to front-line employees. They should also delegate fewer jobs and work together with lower-ranking staff. ''With American Express, for instance, general managers sometimes act as messengers and sort out mail themselves,'' he said. He suggested that front-line staff should be given more training as they were in direct contact with customers. ''Many companies still don't see the benefits of total quality management, which will reduce overheads, raise customer satisfaction and increase profits,'' he said. ''But this doesn't happen overnight. One should have vision and be patient.'' Applications are currently being sought for the Hongkong Management Association quality award.