The rhetoric and reality of Total Quality Management

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Citation: Mark J. Zbaracki (1998) The rhetoric and reality of Total Quality Management. Administrative Science Quarterly (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.2307/2393677
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.2307/2393677
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.2307/2393677
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): The rhetoric and reality of Total Quality Management
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) organization theory (RSS), total quality management (RSS), TQM (RSS)


Mark Zbaracki uses ind in-depth interviews and a thorough qualitative analysis to pick apart the rhetoric versus the reality of Total Quality Management (TQM) in a series of organizations. TQM has been the subject of a series of papers in the institutionalism literature including Westphal et al.'s (1997) Customization or conformity? An institutional and network perspective on the content and consequences of TQM adoption.

Zbaracki tries to argue that institutionalism research tends to talk of isomorphism as adoption of a policy or procedures. Building on his interviews, Zbaracki argues that there are essentially two version of TQM: a technical version and a rhetorical version. Organizations will "conform" by saying that they are conforming to TQM.

Zbaracki argues that while the widespread adoption of TQM might, superficially, appear to be “startling homogeneity,” Zbaracki asks us to look at the “reality” of adoption. When you dig deeper and look at the ways in which TQM is adopted, he argues that what you often see is that the practice itself is radically changed and reinterpreted. Institutional factors are both driving homogeneity through encouraging the adoption of practices and forms but also pushing organizations toward heterogeneity through the different forms that this adoption takes in what are often invisible ways.

Zbaracki's empirical data is from a diverse set of five organizations to build a series of case studies. He interviewed between 9 and 16 individual in each organizations and used case study methods to triangulate his basic findings.

Zbaracki's analysis focuses on the use of stories, and success stories in particular and they are used. He treats the rhetoric and the reality of TQM and discuss how forces act on both the rhetoric and reality. He argues that institutional forces drove the rhetoric of TQM. That said, certain forces worked against the reality of TQM including ignorance of what it was, intimidation by the technical elements of TQM (e.g., the more statistical elements). Zbaracki offers model for the selection and retention of elements of TQM and a cylical way in which that the process was repeated.