Management fads aren't a waste of time, UC Berkeley professor says in new book

By Jacqueline Frost, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- Remember quality circles? How about business process reengineering? Conventional wisdom has deemed them "fad du-jour" practices pushed by managers under pressure to find quick solutions to complex problems.

"Not so," says a business professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has spent years researching and consulting with Japanese and American business enterprises. "Smart companies learn to use fads. Stupid companies don't."

In his new book "Managing Quality Fads. How American Business Learned to Play the Quality Game," Professor Robert E. Cole argues that fads - often derided as a waste of resources - can improve productivity and quality.

"Businesses often need fads to motivate people to try new things," says Cole, the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell II Professor of Leadership and Communication of the Haas School of Business. "Successful managers use fads as building blocks for organizational learning."

Cole's book, just published by Oxford University Press, focuses first on the Japanese "quality challenge" of the early 1980s and America's response to it. American enterprise - particularly the automotive and electronics industries - was blind-sided by the extraordinary market demand for high-quality goods from Japan.

While many managers will concede that American business was slow to answer, they believe its response was ultimately successful.

Cole argues that the tidal wave of organizational innovations - quality circles, statistical process control, cross-functional cooperation, collaboration with one's suppliers, process improvement, customer focus, business process re-engineering, Baldrige protocol diagnostics, and most recently, ISO 9000 - led the way toward improved quality. Each of these was a fad in its time; in some cases only remnants survive but they have been combined in innovative ways to create new and more effective practices, Cole says.

"In the early and mid-1980s, American manufacturing managers in internationally competitive markets such as auto and semiconductors/electronics were wringing their hands, despairing of competing with the Japanese. What a difference a decade and a half makes," says Cole in his book. "Many of the quality models held up for admiration today are American firms like Hewlett-Packard and Federal Express."

Many academics, however, dismiss the entire American quality movement as just another fad, though longer than most.

"The American quality movement has not been a failure. While it involved a succession of fads, it spurred American industries, and has in fact, dramatically raised product quality in the automotive and the electronics industries," Cole says.

He explores the reasons behind the slow American responses in the 1980s and describes the many ways American institutions recreated themselves in the 1990s in order to effectively respond to the quality challenge. In so doing, Cole explores how managers deal with uncertainty in challenging competitive circumstances.

Cole's treatment of the quality movement contains lessons for companies and their managers as they deal with current and future organizational challenges inherent in learning and change.

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