Getting Quality the Old-Fashioned Way:

Self-Confirming Attributions in the Dynamics of
Process Improvement

Nelson R. Repenning
MIT Sloan School of Management, E53-339
Cambridge, MA USA 02142
Phone 617-258-6889
Fax: 617-258-7579
nelsonr "at"
John D. Sterman
MIT Sloan School of Management, E53-351
Cambridge, MA USA 02142
Phone 617-253-1951
Fax: 617-258-7579
jsterman "at"

First Version: August 1996
Current Version (1.0): April 1997

Prepared for National Research Council workshop on Improving Theory and Research on Quality Enhancement in Organizations. Support has been provided by the National Science Foundation, grant SBR-9422228, and the company described in this paper. Many thanks to Tim Tiernan, Bill Colwell, Laura Cranmer, Dave Lazor, Vic Leo, Frank Murdock, Roger Saillant and Ron Smith for their generous assistance. We thank Bob Cole, Dick Scott and the workshop participants for helpful comments and criticisms, along with our colleagues Lotte Bailyn, John Carroll, Drew Jones, Steve Graves, Liz Krahmer, Tom Malone, Wanda Orlikowski, Scott Rockart, Julio Rotemberg, Ed Schein, Peter Senge, and seminar participants at MIT.

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Managers, consultants, and scholars have increasingly begun to recognize the value of considering an organizationUs activities in terms of processes rather than functions. Process oriented improvement techniques such as Total Quality Management and Business Process Reengineering have proven to be powerful tools for improving the effectiveness of many organizations. However, while suggesting new and valuable improvement opportunities, process-focused improvement techniques often fail, many times despite initial success. Existing theory does not explain many of these failures in part because process improvement involves interactions among physical structures and decision making processes in the firm while existing frameworks tend to address one at the expense of the other. Operations research and management science focus on the physical aspects of process improvement while organization theorists focus on the behavioral side. In this paper the beginnings of an integrated, interdisciplinary theory are developed. Drawing on the results of two in-depth case studies of process improvement efforts within a major US corporation, we develop a model that integrates the basic physical structure of process improvement with established theories on human cognition, learning, and organizational behavior to explain the dynamics of process improvement efforts. We show how these interactions can lead to self-confirming attributions which can thwart improvement efforts. We consider implications for practitioners and future research.

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