Theorizing TQM: An Austrian and evolutionary economics interpretation

Todd H. Chiles, Thomas Choi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Born out of management practice, the principles of TQM (total quality management) have had a profound and unparalleled impact on modern business history. However, as a body of practical knowledge, TQM has been largely atheoretical. As a consequence, this important management philosophy has remained amorphous and shrouded in considerable conceptual haziness and ambiguity. Recent theorizing, primarily emphasizing the application of organizational behaviour theories to TQM, has begun to provide greater clarity, but much work remains to be done. This paper attempts to contribute to this nascent theory-building literature by employing theory from market process economics (MPE), namely, Austrian and evolutionary economics, which explains how processes of dynamic change, adaptation, and learning are driven by entrepreneurial creativity. We contend that the patterns in this body of theory match, to a remarkable degree, the patterns of practical knowledge contained in the TQM literature. We demonstrate this 'pattern-matching' by showing that MPE effectively provides the theoretical underpinnings of TQM's three main principles - customer focus, continuous improvement and teamwork - as well as the respective TQM topics of customer perceptions, adaptation in dynamic environments, and knowledge creation. Having established MPE as a credible theoretical lens for interpreting TQM, it can be used to clarify fuzzy areas that have remained in the TQM literature with the potential to take us beyond what we know now. We illustrate this with three examples that show how we can resolve debates in TQM over incentive systems, recognize that TQM embraces methodological pluralism in the collection and analysis of data, and highlight hidden dangers that attend benchmarking. While MPE has no monopoly on theoretical interpretations of TQM, it is unique in its ability to comprehensively cover the incredible breadth of this practical body of knowledge, and in its interpretation of TQM as a dynamic economic endeavour.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)185-212
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Management Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Strategy and Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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