Accounting, finance & control

Quality management: necessity or front?

By Arco van de Ven | August 20, 2014 | 2 min read

A quality mark can result in an organization that hides behind a front of legitimacy, explains Arco van de Ven, professor of Public Information Management, in this column.​

Any argument in favor of implementing or improving quality management usually meets with much sympathy and appreciation. After all, what it boils down to in organizations is the quality of the products and services to be supplied. So who could possibly object to managing this quality? Which is why we see policy plans, quality manuals and quality audits in many sectors for the purpose of working out the details of the PDCA-circle (Plan, Do, Check, Act) of Deming.

The claim that an instrument such as quality management is a good thing, anywhere and anytime, is what institutional sociologists call a rationalized myth. The myth that it is useful and necessary to implement, in this case, quality management, often goes so far that alternatives are inconceivable and are not even considered. Institutional formulation of theories shows that in many cases involving the implementation of an instrument of this kind, the focus is not on improving the situation, but rather on the legitimacy: the impression that it makes on the surroundings. 

Front of legitimacy

A case study by Olivier Boiral among 9 Canadian ISO 14001-certified companies - published in Organization Science in 2007 - is a good example of this. This study shows that observing a quality mark may lead to an organization that ‘hides behind a front of legitimacy’. The focus in the cases studied was not on concern and care for the environment, but rather on acquiring and maintaining the certification. The image of these organizations towards the public was one of ‘green organizations’, by complying with the standard. But the improvements were often merely technical or administrative in nature. In the cases in his study, Olivier Boiral ascertained a huge gap between the rhetoric of the managers and actual daily practice.

The organizations took the initiative in the study discussed above. But more and more, quality management is becoming a stipulation further to statutory regulations and laws. There are more than enough examples. Educational organizations must be accredited to issue master titles; in order to be allowed to teach as a self-employed person at the 0-% VAT rate, you must be registered with the CRBKO (Central Agency Short-term Vocational Education) and the registration is of course subject to a quality audit. The laws and statutory regulations pertaining to day care are also based on quality management. These organizations must have policy plans and day care for pay is only permitted with the appropriate certification.

Rational myth of quality management

But does the registration in a register of instructors result in a higher quality level of the education provided? And do the regulations in the sphere of day care lead to a better quality of these services for children? Or are these actually examples of an undesired increase of bureaucracy? And does this mandatory quality management result in hiding one's actual behavior within organizations behind a front of legitimacy in these cases as well? Hiding behind an extensive paper reality of the formal and bureaucratic quality system.  

I think that it is in any case high time to shatter the rational myth of quality management and to consider alternatives.

This column was previously published in the Controllersmagazine.

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