Controversy: does employee involvement work? The case of TQM HR Management

The case of TQM

Whether employee involvement works or not depends on the aims and objectives of the EI scheme. In addition, there are times when certain schemes will work successfully and other times when they will be unsuccessful, and this is why EI, like many other HRM policies, goes through fashion changes. The economic, political and social context influences the type and success of the scheme that organisations adopt (Ramsay, 1992a).

Further influencing factors are the type, size and sector of the organisation. What may work in a small firm, for example, may not work so well in a large, bureaucratic organisation.What may work in a democratic organisational culture will probably be unsuccessful in a more authoritarian one (Wilkinson, 1989). The aims and objectives of an organisation in increasing the number and intensity of communication channels may be specifically ‘political’.

For example, in times of dispute with the union, the management may feel they need to put their side of the case more effectively to the workforce. In the past many companies found themselves at a comparative disadvantage in disputes, as the unions had a virtual monopoly of the informational channels to the workforce. This was no fault of the unions but more a reflection of the incompetence of management, who were incapable of creating effective communication channels, which they suspected could be used at other times for what might be perceived as more negative purposes (Monks, 1989).

In other words, management can themselves suffer from their own ideology of operating ‘mushroom systems’ (keeping the workforce in the dark and piling ‘manure’ on them), which maintains a climate of distrust and attitudes of ‘us and them’. Fortunately, surveys indicate that in many organisations such ideas are becoming less popular (CBI, 1989; Marchington et al., 1992).

Even schemes such as TQM, which begin life for the most positive reasons – for example, the enhancement of employee commitment, motivation and empowerment – may become distorted by factors, both internal and external, that turn them into something unworkable and, from the employee point of view, into a sinister attempt to gain more commitment, work and productivity, without the concomitant reward, control or empowerment given to employees.

Total quality management has been increasing in popularity in many organisations in recent years, and is often bound up with culture changes and other HRM and managerial initiatives such as customer service programmes. TQM operates at both a local and an establishment-wide level, and pervades the whole organisation. It is concerned with concepts such as culture change, which in turn engender attitudinal changes in the workforce.

At workplace level, emphasis can be placed purely on improving the quality of the product or service and, like customer service schemes, this can also be the implementation of more efficiency between internal departments (which can be seen as internal customers) and external customers themselves. Like quality circles, the idea stems from the writings of Deming, Juran, and more recently Crosby (1979, 1984). It has also been linked to British Standard BS 5750 and ISO 9000 approaches, although many claim that this is more suitable for production-oriented rather than service sector work.

Wilkinson et al. (1992: 5) point out clearly the differences between QCs and TQM (and their implications). The compulsory nature of TQM, with its topdown overtones, suggests a system in which worker empowerment is very much restricted within the boundaries set by management. In its operation in production companies Sewell and Wilkinson (1992) also propose that it has an air of surveillance, whereby the performance of individual workers is monitored so as to control their work to conform to the group norm – a norm set by management.

They describe how, in an electronic components factory, the teams who make the components, especially the team leader, ‘have a great deal of discretion in the way labour resources are deployed across the cell [the unit of manufacture]’ (Sewell and Wilkinson, 1992: 104). Multi-skilling is encouraged, and work rotation is allocated by the team and team leader. Within the team, individuals are encouraged to improve personal performance, and innovations should be made to improve productivity and product quality.

Team meetings provide the forums where such issues are debated and information shared. Quality is controlled by a visual inspection and electronic tests, which also trace the individual responsible for the fault. This information, together with data on absenteeism, conformity to standard times and production planning targets, is prominently displayed for all the team to see. Naturally, the information forms the basis of much discussion between team members.

In turn this creates a situation where the team will ‘discipline’ those whom they feel are not conforming to the norms. This is a form of what Friedman (1977) called responsible autonomy, a situation in which the group acts as the controller of the individual and therefore the team. Thus managers can clearly claim that the workforce is being ‘empowered’. This delegation of power, however, has a dual nature, which according to Muetzfeldt (quoted in Sewell and Wilkinson, 1992), ‘can actually increase the power of the delegating agency, so long as it can legitimate and retain its authority, and undermine it if the obedience of the delegated agents cannot be assured’.

Ideal types of quality circle and TQM

Ideal types of quality circle and TQM

Sewell and Wilkinson see this system of TQM as an analogy of the work of Foucault, who stressed the importance of tracing the loci of power in organisations in order to understand its importance and how it is used, like the panopticon, the hub of the surveillance system in Victorian prisons. The electronic quality-recording mechanisms in the operation of TQM in the electronics factory they dub the information panopticon, a device used in the control of team norms set by management.

Wilkinson et al. (1992), in their research into EI for the Department of Employment (see also Marchington et al., 1992), visited 25 organisations, of which the majority had TQM programmes in operation. In examining these practices it was evident that TQM operated in a wide variety of forms and, like HRM, was open to a variety of definitions and interpretations. In a close examination of TQM in three typical British companies in engineering, finance and marketing, the researchers discovered several problems in its implementation and operation.

All of the schemes were difficult to sustain for four basic reasons. First, the schemes were narrow in conception and ‘bolted-on to rather than integrated in, key management policies’ (Wilkinson et al., 1992: 14). As a result, some schemes looked very similar to quality circles and thus had many of their faults. Companies tended to look for immediate gains rather than long-term cultural changes. ‘If these are not forthcoming TQM is short lived’.

In turn this created an obsession with ‘the cost of quality and immediacy of return, concepts which are totally different from Japanese thinking'. Second, the role of middle managers became unclear and confused, and was looked upon as one group of managers imposing itself on another. This had the effect of creating conflicts. Because TQM was carried out in a highly centralised framework in most organisations, teams were reliant on the services of other departments, with which they were competing for resources, and each department was often in ignorance of how they were affected by each other. The competition thus militated against mutually cooperative solutions.

Third, industrial relations, while affecting TQM programmes are rarely considered by employers. Thus there was usually neglect in obtaining union agreement or establishing a positive working climate before implementing TQM schemes, a situation almost guaranteed to create suspicion in either the unions or the workforce. TQM has a strong impact on such issues as job control, working practices and reward, all of which can, if not handled sensitively, create problems, as unions and workers may place obstacles in the way of the system’s operation.Fourth, employee involvement in TQM schemes can have contradictory elements.

Similar to the findings of Sewell and Wilkinson, it was discovered that there was a contradiction in the language of employee involvement (empowerment of the workforce, etc.) and the actuality of the work situation, in which power very much rested in the hands of management. Employee involvement and empowerment Recent critical studies of the ‘quality’ movement have drawn attention to its wider implications.

Wilkinson and Wilmot (1995) state that it is relevant to place the quality movement ‘in the wider context of pressures from shareholders upon managers to organise the work of employees in ways that are more profitable’. They continue by stating that ‘quality initiatives are often imposed upon an unprepared and hesitant, if not hostile, management by the intensity of (global) competitive pressures’. They also draw attention ‘to the strength and depth of the participation promoted by TQM.

It is striking that participation does not extend to key decisions relating to the ownership and control of companies’. In a recent comparative study of employee involvement in the banking sector in Britain and Sweden, Holden (1996) has concluded that most participation mechanisms, particularly those related to recent HRM initiatives such as TQM, do not encourage participation by the workforce in strategic issues. Most are confined to workplace areas, and therefore tend to be restricted in their sphere of control. This is particularly surprising when much HRM literature advocates the strategic nature of HRM policy in relation to employee influence.

These studies point to a number of problems in the implementation of TQM. Ramsay (1992a) has noted, with some laconic interest, the rise and fall of fads and fashions in employee involvement, and speculates about what might be next on the agenda if TQM does not succeed! What is certain is that easy solutions do not exist, and the implementation of new systems has to be viewed within a long-term framework and reviewed constantly with the full consent and approval of the workforce.

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