Employee involvement in Total Quality Management

Total Quality Management is one of the major "workplace change" programmes used in Britain, but few studies have addressed the effects on employees. New research evidence questions optimistic and pessimistic accounts, finding that TQM is widely welcomed but that it does not lead to "empowerment", and that success depends on certain conditions, notably job security.

The context of Total Quality Management

Total Quality Management (TQM) has been a leading development of the 1990s in Britain. Surveys find that almost three-quarters of organisations claim to have formal quality programmes, which are believed to work by increasing employees' interest in their jobs and their understanding of how their work contributes to organisational goals. Many of these programmes have been introduced in the past five years. Definitions of TQM vary but its core comprises: a focus on the customer; the improvement and inter-linking of business processes; and continuous improvement ("Making quality critical", A Wilkinson and H Willmott, eds, London, Routledge, 1995.).

Analysis falls into two main types:

  • optimistic texts, which often prescribe ways of implementing TQM and assume a welcome from employees; and
  • critical studies, which either (a) equate TQM with intensified managerial control under the pretence of "empowerment" or (b) accept that TQM can be effective, but argue that in practice poor implementation has undermined this promise.

The critical studies often argue that TQM undermines the representative role of trade unions by strengthening direct links between employer and employee.

New research evidence

A new report - "Involving employees in Total Quality Management", M Collinson, P Edwards and C Rees, London, Department of Trade and Industry (March 1997)- published by the Department of Trade and Industry, challenges both these lines of argument. Drawing on interview and questionnaire data collected in 1995 from six named organisations, it argues (a) that employees welcome some but not all features of TQM, (b) that existing accounts have an unduly strict benchmark for the effects of TQM, and (c) that success depends on certain conditions.

(a) Employee views

More than four-fifths of the sample of employees saw quality as the crucial issue for their organisations or as very important. Almost two-thirds felt that employees had a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of influence over quality, and over 70 per cent felt that their own involvement in problem-solving had increased. Five employees in six identified the presence of meetings designed for problem-solving.

Of the sample, 72% felt that there had been an increase in communication activity recently. The most favourably evaluated method was team briefing, followed by informal communication with individual managers. It was direct, face-to-face, communication which employees most valued.

Workers also reported more stress and higher levels of work effort. A key result was that reported levels of trust between management and worker were no higher than in organisations without TQM initiatives.

(b) Management and worker expectations

Many proponents of TQM claim that it "empowers" workers. Critics equate it with work intensification and stress. The study finds that neither picture is accurate. Managements in the organisations studied did not use the language of empowerment and had more pragmatic goals. One manager summed this up: "empowerment is not a word used at local level; we can and do involve people more but we need to have constraints".

Workers reported higher effort levels, but most liked the pace at which they worked. Those who were working harder and who were most subject to the measurement of their performance were also the most likely to favour quality programmes. These programmes seem to promote a narrowly focused but real sense of discipline and purpose, rather than being a means to make workers work harder, the report concludes.

(c) Conditions for success

Acceptance of TQM was greatest where several conditions prevailed.

  • A strong sense of job security was a key element in encouraging acceptance of quality initiatives.
  • Training was important; it was not the overall amount which mattered, but the extent to which programmes were specifically linked to quality or teamwork.
  • Cooperative relationships with employee representatives were an important element in easing the acceptance of TQM. All the case study firms were unionised, and it was found that firms which maintained working relationships with their unions were also the most likely to maintain their quality programmes effectively.
  • Short-term pressures tended to undermine TQM initiatives. They were of two kinds: production pressures, which made it hard for quality activities to be maintained; and financial pressures, which could reduce the resources for and commitment to TQM.


"Quality programmes can", the study says, "be seen as catalysts", bringing out workers' willingness to take responsibility and providing a focus and rationale for efforts at involvement. But involvement remained within tight limits and there were several factors, notably insecurity and financial constraints, which could undercut the promise of quality programmes. "The challenge", the study concludes, "is to maintain TQM in the face of external pressures".

The study

The study involved six named organisations: British Steel (Shotton Works, in North Wales); the Halifax Building Society; the London Borough of Lewisham; Philips Domestic Appliances (Hastings site, in Sussex); Severn Trent Water; and South Warwickshire NHS Trust. It was based on interviews with managers and trade union representatives and a detailed survey of employee opinions; a total of 280 employee responses was obtained.


The study was conducted in unionised organisations, and does not claim that a trade union role was essential. It quotes related research as showing that TQM can work well in non-union cases, but even in these there was a system of employee representation in place. The report thus contributes to debates on "social partnership" by arguing that institutionalised employee representation can be an important condition for successful workplace change.

The report was conducted at one point in time and cannot assess the progress of TQM over time. However, all the initiatives studied had been in place for some time and there was no evidence of a loss of enthusiasm. Later events support the argument about job security: the Halifax Building Society has now merged with the Leeds Building Society, but this was done with the promise of no compulsory redundancy. The study thus points to the central role of job security in promoting acceptance of change; there are parallels with recent job security agreements (UK9702102F). (PK Edwards, IRRU)

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