This case study presents a new quality improvement approach to understanding the culture of quality in organizations. Dr. WE Deming, the pioneer of quality improvement, endorsed a book on quality, claiming:

This book is for people that are living the tyranny of the prevailing style of management. The huge, long range losses caused by this style of management have led us into decline. Most people imagine that the present style of management has always existed, and is a fixture. Actually, it is a modern invention- a prison created by the way in which people interact. This interaction afflicts all aspects of our lives- government, industry, education, health care.

My first social action research study since leaving the profession of developmental disabilities services was in a bar code device manufacturer. Working on the assembly line, I learned that the company was experiencing a chronic quality problem. When the device was attached with a laser motor the laser light was not straight but “wobbled” instead.

Using Dr. Deming’s plan-do-study-act cycle, I asked who is studying laser motor wobble. I found that a social network of engineers and technicians were, and that there were no assemblers in the social network studying laser wobble. The assemblers began to study laser motor wobble and over a short period, they had solved the issue.

The ROI for giving the assemblers the freedom to solve laser motor wobble was 17. For every dollar the company invested in assemblers studying and solving the problem, the company received $17 in return. Using social network mapping this case study shows a shift in social structure.

In the first network, there were no assemblers allowed to study manufacturing processes. In the social action research study, assemblers were given permission to study (and solve) the wobble problem. Initially, the assemblers had no job control. In the social action research study they were given job control.

Social epidemiological research in public health has shown that workers that do not have job control, or the freedom to improve their work, experience twice the likelihood of having coronary heart disease and ill mental health. Health is productivity and quality improvement practices should expand their capacity by using social action research to study the social structure of organizational culture.