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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 10 Numbers 1 and 2, 2000

Constutive Dynamics of An Organizational Change in the US Air Force



Larry D. Browning
University of Texas at Austin

Sim B. Sitkin
Duke University

Kathleen M. Sutcliffe
University of Michigan

David Obstfeld
University of Michigan

Ronald Walter Greene
University of Texas at Austin

    Abstract. We use qualitative research methods to showcase a success story and advance our understanding of the constitutive nature of organizational communication. We collected data at a United States U.S. Air Force aircraft maintenance team in Barnstorm U.S. Air Force Base, Florida. The theme of the study is (1) team members almost in a consensual voice told us that they did not really follow the quality rules that had been mandated by the U.S. Air Force but simply extracted from them the idea "look for a better way." (2) They outlined for us a sophisticated set of interpersonal and organizational practices that their group used in common to get official government rules for repairing aircraft changed. Their skill at initiating this change contributed to four key constitutive dynamics: quality, work rules, models of communication, and self formation.


On the surface of things, the human sciences appear fragmented and disconnected because of the burdens of specialization. However, a major force pulling them together is the shared insight that language plays a fundamental role in the social organization of human behavior (Geertz 1973). The insight that humans are spoken for in language as much as they speak a language is the central insight of a constitutive approach to language. While the constitutive force of language shapes all forms of practical action, a constitutive approach to communication highlights how communication, as a particular form of practical action, puts language to use in specific contexts to produce meaningful social interactions (Craig 1999 ; Greene 1998). Particularly in the United States, a constitutive approach builds on the insight that the study of communication offers itself as a form of empowerment in the achievement of civic involvement, economic advancement, and relational success.

Absent a constitutive insight, the tendency is to understand communication simply as a medium for the exchange of information from one person to another. This understanding of communication as a process of information exchange encourages thinking about communication less in terms of its relationship to language as a constitutive force than as a kind of engineering problem to be tinkered with and managed by a human actor. For constitutive theory, communication is an integral component in the production and creation of meaning, and not simply a mechanism for transporting information from one person to another. From the constitutive perspective, communication is more than an instrumental means for achieving a goal; it is always implicated in the invention, comprehension, and valuation of those goals for the building of a shared world.

To advocate a constitutive approach to communication is to argue that the ability of human beings to live, love and work is made possible and problematic by their insertion into a linguistic economy, a process made manifest in the desire to communicate. Since communication is a social accomplishment that brings forth a world, or community, that contours the ways in which we might live, love and work, communicative action has the potential to transform the linguistic economy that organizes the rules of communication.

Today, a constitutive approach to communication no longer requires a philosophical defense. However, it is in need of concrete instances for the demonstration of how communicative action serves to create, maintain and transform the ways in which we live. Anthony Giddens' (1984) theory of structuration provides a useful point of departure for locating a constitutive approach to communication within the pragmatic context of organizational change. One of Giddens’ central insights is that the constitution of an organizational change is made possible by, in, and through the intended and unintended consequences of social actors negotiating the rules and resources which structure practical action. Communicative action serves an important role in the recursive relationship between structure (rules and resources) and agency (practical action), a relationship described by Giddens (1984) as the "duality of structure." The role of communicative action is made visible primarily, but not exclusively, when individuals account for their practical actions in light of the rules and resources that constrain and enable particular forms of behavior. Yet, communicative action does more than simply mediate the relationship between structure and agency; communicative action is itself a particular form of practical action affected by the duality of structure. In other words, rules and resources intrinsic to communicative action structure talk, just as talk can transform the rules and resources that constrain and enable particular communicative actions. This paper focuses on one concrete instance of a complex language game inaugurated by the United State Air Force in an effort to re-design the rule structures pertaining to the repair of F-15 and F-16 fighter planes.

In order to explicate how the U.S. Air Force performs this organizational change we want to zoom in on the relationship between the rules and resources which govern the repair procedures of the F-15 and F-16 and how the U.S. Air Force technicians actively put these rules into operation, modifying the rules concerning particular repair procedures. More specifically, we analyze how the use of TQM (Total Quality Management) as a meta-rule to regulate the repair process of F-15 and F-16 fighter planes produces a dynamic and flexible re-configuration of the relationship between structure and agency concerning the operational procedures for making a repair to a particular aircraft. Our interest in the relationship between meta-rules and operational procedures points to a very specific encounter with the rules and resources that structure the activities of U.S. Air Force technicians. This encounter is described by Darrin Hicks and Lenore Langsdorf (1999) as a form of "constitutive proceduralism." Hicks and Langsdorf outline their concept of constitutive proceduralism within the context of the communicative rules that regulate the argumentative encounters of participants engaged in the act of decision making. With an eye toward how constitutive proceduralism contributes to fine tuning Gidden’s theory of structuration, we want to highlight how the change in the repair procedures of the U.S. Air Force contributes to the constitutive relationship between structure and agency in four areas: (1) the rules affecting the work environment, (2) the rules associated with communicative action, (3) the norms put into action by the participants and (4) the shaping of the technicians themselves as a particular type of person.

In terms of changing the work environment we describe the significance of U.S. Air Force Regulation AFI-21-123 in bringing about TQM and how the U.S. Air Force technicians put it into operation to make particular changes in the repair procedures of fighter planes. We will also explain how the need to account for changes in the repair procedures set up a series of communicative rules to facilitate the U.S. Air Force technicians’ task in persuading the regulating authorities to the advantages of their suggested changes. In this case study, the constitution of the norm of quality takes place through a process of promoting changes in the repair procedures that meets both the demands of cost effectiveness and operational safety. Finally, the constitutive consequence of this particular organizational change sets in motion the shaping of U.S. Air Force technicians into more entrepreneurial subjects.

The Research Program in Relation to the Maintenance Technicians' Case

This paper is based on qualitative data from one of 45 cases we studied as part of a United States Government National Science Foundation grant researching the implementation of Total Quality methods. In our grant application, we proposed to investigate the varied success of Total Quality Management programs (TQM) by bifurcating Quality into Quality Control, which addresses how to do things better, and Quality Learning, which address how to do better things (Reiman, 1995). We associated these quality approaches with the relative amount of uncertainty as seen by the participants and by ourselves on the projects they accomplished. We proposed a contingency theory of Total Quality Management, theorizing that tight procedures will produce success when problems are certain and that adapted or changed procedures will produce success when problems are uncertain.

To explore the contingency-theory thesis about control and learning, we devised an interview schedule (see Figure 1). We used the interview initially in this research by asking interviewees for an overall description of the organization’s quality program and a description of the nature of their task and how they meant to undertake it. Since our thesis is based on adaptation, we asked questions about points of difficulty in the task and barriers to using approved methods, in order to legitimize our discussion of difficulty with official methods. Since process methods often include an assessment stage that both precedes and follows the action taken, these interviewees were comfortable talking about success and failure, such evaluation being common to most TQM methods.

For the first round of interviews, we met with the organization’s liaison person to select projects to pursue later. We asked that person for two things: (1) a description of the approach to quality that the organization had embraced, and (2) access to individuals who had worked on projects representing the range of circumstances apt to provide data on the contingency issue. In order to sharpen or investigation, we decided to address a research question that arose from contingency theory: What is the relationship between task certainty and the use of TQM techniques?

To meet this goal, we had projects ranging from high to low certainty and TQM practices ranging from orientation to control or learning. We sought as much variation on these topics as possible. From the large firms in the sample the number of projects ranged from five to seven. In the small firms, we collected data on only two projects, usually on the ones that had produced the greatest and poorest results.

Because of possible different interpretations of uncertainty for individuals and organizations, we chose the project as the unit of analysis so that our interviewees would be responding to a common reference. We focused on the specific task the TQM methodology was being directed toward and analyzed TQM implementation in relation to that project. To ensure a wide context of details, we asked about the "story" of the project. This approach encouraged the interviewees to reduce the amount of diagnosis and to provide details that they might otherwise deem trivial (Polster, 1987).

We were interested in examining the actual practices of organizations known for being good at using these methods. Our cases were drawn from a national sample based on nominations across all U.S. industry sectors as assigned by five TQM researcher/experts. This course of action produced a 12-organization research population. The United States Air Force was one member of that population. We agreed with them to collect data on 12 cases on two different U.S. Air Force Bases. We completed in-depth interviews on projects that the organizations themselves defined as exemplary cases of either direct or adapted TQM use.

The study we report draws on data from one such case to which we have assigned the (coined) name Barnstorm U.S. Air Force.

This paper addresses the constitutive nature of organizational communication. It is drawn from data we collected from an U.S. U.S. Air Force aircraft maintenance team that services F-15 and F-16 fighter planes. We made two key findings. (1) The technicians told us, almost unanimously, that they hadn’t really followed the Quality rules mandated by the U.S. Air Force; rather, they simplified matters by extrapolating from those rules to a single core practice, namely, to "look for a better way." (2) They used a sophisticated set of interpersonal and organizational practices to get official government rules for repairing aircraft changed.

Their skill at initiating and completing these changes demonstrated a communicative flexibility that is the constitutive theme of our paper.

To help explain these findings, we will examine the design of U.S. Air Force Instruction 21-123—hereafter "AFI-21-123"—and will show the way in which the technicians’ efforts honored this instruction to "be innovative and communicate the results of your innovation widely." The examples of projects and practices given by the technicians suggested they are the innovators and communicators that the instruction calls for. As our previous research shows (Browning, Sitkin, and Sutcliffe, 1998 ), people tend to disregard the origins of rules once they have simplified and internalized them; they retain the spirit of the rule but drop the features of it (DeSanctis and Poole, 1994). The technicians were following the precepts of the rule and doing so in an improvisational, self-organizing, emergent, strategic, and individually driven way— which is what AFI-21-123 directs them to do.

This case is particularly useful in understanding our control and learning thesis because it is about first- and second-order learning. First-order learning involves discovering the solution to a local, specific problem, that is, fixing a problem in the context of an already established perspective. Second-order learning refers to schemata about how the organization performs particular activities and organizes its climate and culture (Bartunek , 1984; Bartunek and Moch, 1987 ; Bartunek, 1993).

In this case, the technicians practiced first-order learning by their routine maintenance of fixing the fighter planes. Once they began following the directions of AFI, their behavior became second-order change because they were following a new set of decision premises—talking and arguing about the nature of the rules themselves. In effect they changed the rule structure that made up their environment. To focus our attention on this particular component of constitutive proceduralism, the rules and resources associated with work, we analyze the rule that authorized the technician’s active behavior.

An Analysis of AFI-21-123: Rules and Organizational Change

Background of the Regulation

AFI-21-123 is an archival document that was given to the NSF site interviewers upon concluding their data collection at the maintenance unit. Once the interviews were transcribed, we searched that document, among other archival material, for clues to explain the technicians’ stories. One of the things that accounts for the high level of innovation practiced by the technicians, we concluded, is, ironically, the very brevity of the regulation itself. The text of AFI-21-123 runs only two pages long; also, it gives only general guidance. After reading it, one would be hard-pressed to know what any actions based on the AFI-21-123 would look like if one didn’t have examples such as the ones reported here to go by. However, the brief instruction is represented in a PERT chart showing a series of yes/no choices among eight step-wise criteria, and an outline for submitting a case to the Repair Initiatives Conference. The regulation promotes bottoms-up change, and emphasizes the use of local resources— not a bad idea to support the technical development of the civilian community outside the base. Because of the lack of detail, it is easy to understand how each technician might interpret the document individually and come up with his or her own clever solutions.

The regulation exists as a meta-rule allowing for the possibility of change in the operational rules of Aircraft repair procedures. The interaction between meta-rules and operational rules is one place where constitutive proceduralism works to transform this organization at the level of work rules. This U.S. Air Force efficiency program grew out of a TQM strategy that was essentially a contract between the U.S. Air Force and defense-oversight groups in Congress. It was aimed at getting funding for the next generation of technology, especially electronics, in exchange for the promise of achieving cost savings by effectively implementing TQM methodology. The U.S. Air Force saw this belt tightening as their contribution to the peace dividend required at the end of the cold war. According to the Secretary of the Air Force, the U.S. Air Force budget since the Berlin Wall came down has declined in many areas by 40%. On the up side, the Air Force was funded for something it saw as essential to future success. This very expensive technology development was crucial in keeping the 1991 Desert Storm casualty rate so low for the U.S. and its allies, and allowed NATO to conduct war without casualties for themselves in the Spring and Summer of 1999 in Kosovo.

How does this strategic commitment show up in what the U.S. Air Force does? This TQM strategy was given teeth at several levels of implementation. At the highest level, United States Public Law was changed to a set of standards based on the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for the Inspector General of each Major Command to follow. Thus the U.S. Air Force was bound, legally, to implement TQM.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force trained all levels in TQM methodology. At the service schools, for instance, people were given up to 40 hours’ training on TQM philosophy and techniques.

This call for efficiency was also substantive for the aircraft maintenance unit we describe in this case. Not only were they given a U.S. Air Force regulation to follow and the training to follow it, but their annual funding was designed to end in early August for a physical year that ran through September. U.S. Air Force Instruction 21-123 directs them first to experiment, to find unique solutions to maintenance and repair problems, then to sell them. If they do not sell solutions within the U. S military maintenance community during a given year, they are out of money for aircraft repair in the last 10% of their funding cycle. The sense of financial urgency that this financial constraint created is thematic in the interviews. The financial component is also an example of the constitutive relationship between rules and resources (Giddens, 1984). The tightening of the resources creates a bridge between the meta-rule and the operational rule by building in an incentive for changing the repair process.

The Constitutive Power of Rules

How, specifically, does AFI-21-123 explain the technicians’ behavior? Although brief, it directs aircraft repair personnel to initiate changes in repair and procurement procedures themselves. This policy of having the one closest to the problem be the one to decide on crucial handling issues is central to most Quality theories. The Quality here arises from the ingenious design of the procedure as much as it does from the conscious behavior of the technicians enacting the instruction. They merely embody the instruction. The proof of this claim is that when the technicians are asked about the Quality procedures they have followed, they disclaim any use of them. Nevertheless, once AFI-21-123 is reviewed, it is clear that the technicians have achieved its goals.

It had two chief aims: (1) to increase base and wing self-sufficiency, and (2) to cut costs, including the expense and slowness of hierarchy. And how did it aim to achieve these goals? By giving autonomy to the maintenance technician.

In a later part of AFI-21-123 dealing with how to use the program, the technician is told the following: "Typically, the maintenance technician starts the process by questioning the rationale for coding an item depot-reparable, locally-condemnable, or expendable, that might be repaired locally. All technicians play a key role in identifying potential unit-level reparables." They are then referred to a standard U.S. Air Force form 1000 suggestion-box form on which to record any of their ideas.

AFI-21-123 also legitimizes the Repair Initiatives Conference—a public forum for resolving differences between the Depot approvers and those initiating a change. The meeting is intended to "break any communication ‘gridlock’" as well as provide opportunities for "cross-tells," new technology and demonstrations of repair processes (AFI-21-123, p. 3).

This rule is a kind of empowerment in that it directs technicians to change rules via bottom-up action. The purpose is to break down constraints—but only useless ones. As such, it is breaking one control structure and replacing it with another, more flexible, one. Let us say a technician devises what he thinks is a faster, cheaper way to implement an aircraft repair. He writes up his proposal on one of the official suggestion-box forms and sends it to the Depot. In order to approve the suggested change, a Depot approver must override an existing, official procedure—a Secretary of the U.S. Air Force’s Technical Order (TO), which is the official legal guide for how to maintain the aircraft. Obviously there is in-built potential for dispute here, because changes are not made, and cannot be made, frivolously.

AFI-21-123 is actually quite ingenious. It’s an unusually pure example of integrative complexity (Maruyama, 1993; Suedfeld, Tetlock, & Streufert, 1992, Harvey, 1966) because, although it focuses on rule-driven behavior, it also opposes rules for rule’s sake. It is a rule that directs technicians to test rules via action and experiments.

The instruction increases emphasis on local access to measurement that can be later monitored by independent reviewers, the Depot approvers, who sit far above the action. Because the military technicians have to apply to civilian controllers at a distant Depot, the instruction contains both control and action—another property of integrative complexity (Suedfeld, Tetlock, and Streufert, 1992). Once proposals are taken under review, they remain on the forum agenda for a period of time until they are resolved. One of the precepts of integrative complexity is tolerance for uncertainty (Harvey, 1966). Having repair proposals before the forum over a period of months is in keeping with this idea, since it gives time for level heads to prevail. This approach suggests a hierarchy where learning is at the bottom and control is at the top. Finally, in AFI-21-123 this process is public, allowing as it does both an agenda and a forum for speaking. The process has two beneficial outcomes. Public behavior tends to increase complexity and thoroughness of the arguments; furthermore, when individuals make public commitments, the commitments are more likely to be accomplished (Tetlock, 1985).

This empowerment program is remarkable in that it occurs in a high-risk environment involving loss of life and equipment when errors occur, yet it departs from high-level expert as the sole source of defining that risk. It basically says to the technician: "We value your expertise, too. We want to hear from you."

The method of using learning at the work place to drive organizational change contests the effects of hierarchy on communication—slowness and distortion. These constraints are overcome in this example by designing instructions that have clear purpose and guidelines. They are also overcome by what Giddens, borrowing from Erving Goffman, terms "co-presence" (1984). The technician and the pilot whose plane he services are on the same base and thus see each other regularly. Their face-to-face relationship makes for a tight coupling.

Their objective, as specified in the U.S. Air Force Instruction, was to save money on aircraft repair either by finding available parts on the Internet or by repairing rather than replacing parts at full cost to the Civilian Depot. In short, they were asked to do more with less. And they did. For example, when the interviewer asked technicians to explain what happened on a particular Quality project, they made a point of explaining how they had saved the U.S. Air Force money and had minimized the downtime of aircraft by replacing defective parts expeditiously. Their lists of where such savings occurred were impressive; they included savings of $600,000 to $800,000 each on such projects as antenna, circuit-card repair, video repair, wing-light replacement, and the exhaust director.

Successful Rule Change

For example, they saved thousands of dollars when an Internet search turned up a needed exhaust device that sharpens the turning radius of the aircraft by rotating the tailpipe. This part was causing an unacceptable "MICAP"—their acronym for Mission Capability, that is, a grounding condition for lack of a part. The technicians found the part was "very hard to get." Making the crisis even more urgent, they discovered that the problem was systemic. Worldwide, there were no less than 68 grounding conditions over an 80-day period. After searching the Internet, they managed to find a Navy aviation station Depot at Cherry Point, North Carolina, that would overhaul the exhaust devices for $2,500 a piece, whereas the official U.S. Air Force Depot would charge $5,700. Such savings are important to the technicians because they are charged with producing savings as part of their job. They need to find places where they can show a profit, since the savings are added to their budget and allow them to finish in the black. In this instance, they could contract to have the repairs done at Cherry Point and then sell them back to their own supply system for the Depot-based charge. This technique allowed them to show a substantial profit for each exhaust unit that they had serviced by the Navy.

Another example of creative cost cutting involved replacing the AEF Antenna, which is a backup for the navigation system on one of the planes. The base had a plane grounded for 38 days for the lack of this part, and no solution seemed forthcoming. Because the antenna is designed to last the life of a jet, it is no longer being made. A call came from headquarters asking, "Can you guys do something about this?" Spurred by this special request, the technicians learned that their supply Depot had cannibalized 50 of the needed antennae from other aircraft and had stored them in the "bone yard," a site for scrapping and disposing of old parts. But they also discovered that the Depot engineers didn’t know how to test the antennae for usability. The technicians, however, happened to have the testing equipment right there at their own base, so they asked the Depot to ship them two antennae in hopes that one might prove sound. And it did.

This piece of ingenuity solved their local problem, but they soon saw a larger opportunity. The interviewee recalled their saying, "Wait a minute. There’s eight or nine worldwide MICAPS" (from this defective part). So they immediately ordered 50 more of them, just to be safe. They received them, as it happens, just a week before an U.S. Air Force avionics conference. So they took the antennae to that conference where they demonstrated how to test them. Ten antennae tested perfectly functional, and these they immediately sold to conference attendees from around the world. Here again, a primary force causing the technicians to look beyond their immediate problems was a performance requirement to find solutions and then sell them worldwide.

Because our methodology calls for studying the U.S. Air Force's best at TQM implementation, it is not clear how much stories like this can in fact be replicated throughout the U.S. Air Force, but that is precisely the point of the U.S. Air Force strategy. The idea is to get people at every base looking for ways to cut costs locally and also to sell the fruits of their cost cutting across the system. The latter requirement demonstrates the value of coordination. Local repair units have incentives (March, 1981) to share knowledge with the USAF repair community worldwide. How gladdening for taxpayers, given that the military, historically, is known for its wastefulness, not its efficiency.

Contested Relationships with the Depot

However, not all the technicians’ stories were happy ones. For example, they once reported finding a cheaper source for an external instrumentation device that provides a pilot data on the aircraft’s performance. Because the device is exposed, its tips are often damaged from hitting bugs. The technicians managed to find a company able to redo the tips at a considerable saving. But the Civilian Depot, unconvinced that such a repair was truly safe, rejected the solution. The testing data, however, was ambiguous. As far as the technicians were concerned, the data confirmed their solution. As one of them said, "It actually comes out stronger and everything. And so it’s a real sound idea, but that was one of the battles we lost to the Depot engineers." These battles with the Depot over the most safe and efficient ways to repair aircraft are evident in many of the cases the technicians provided. The uncertainty of the correct solution is one of the reasons the U.S. Air Force provides a forum, legitimized by AFI-21-123, to resolve these issues. We will discuss this forum later in the paper.

Most of our interviewees focused on reporting to us examples of their attempts to cut costs without compromising safety standards. And this is where they regularly ran afoul of the Depot, as in the example just mentioned. The reason is that the Depot—and only the Depot—determines whether an U.S. Air Force unit, like the one where we conducted our interviews, can use solutions they devise or sell those same solutions to other U.S. Air Force units. As a result of these differences, the technicians carefully scrutinize the Depot engineers and are ready with examples showing how the engineers are often inefficient in their use of time and money. They were especially quick to fret about the inefficiency and prodigality of the Depot’s engineers when it affected them directly. When, for example, the technicians at a base can’t solve a particular problem and thus must pay for the Depot’s engineers to come solve it for them, those same engineers would frequently be guilty of carelessness with their expenses. For example, the Depot engineers keep some of the alignment tools in their own shop. So when that repair comes up, "we have to pay these guys to come down here, and we pay all their expenses. And what we find out is the people get here and then the tool was being used at Langley and they have to wait for those guys to get done with it and ship it to Barnstorm U.S. Air Force Base. " So these guys are here two, three or four days—a week—before the tool comes in." Given the focus on savings reported in other parts of this case, such fault finding is understandable.

The technicians describe their relationship with the Depot engineers as contentious—and designed to be so. The technicians are being directed in AFI-21-123 to innovate on aircraft repair using local sources or contracted sources. These changes must be approved by the Depot, which is charged with enforcing the Secretary of the U.S. Air Force’s Technical Orders (TO’s) for aircraft maintenance. As one of the technicians said about the approval unit, "You know, what’s funny about this business is the people who approve our initiatives are responsible for the status quo. So if they approve our idea, it actually ends up reflecting badly on them." Several of the technicians affirm this inherent conflict.

Strategies for Getting a Technical Order Changed

We now turn to the communicative behaviors that the technicians used to get official approval for their newfound methods. A second major finding of this study concerns the constitutive relationship between work rules and the rules informing communicative action. To make a change in the repair procedures, technicians must engage in communicative action in order to persuade the Civilian Depot of the need for organizational change. Our focus on these communicative actions highlights the recursive relationship between structure and agency described by Giddens as duality of structure (1984).

Our understanding of the tacit rules informing the communicative action is aided by our understanding of alliances and perspective-taking and especially by the literature on information richness (Daft and Lengel, 1984 , 1986 ; Daft, Lengel, and Trevino, 1987 ; Daft and Macintosh, 1981 ; Sitkin, Sutcliffe, and Barrios-Choplin, 1992). This literature reports a program of communication research that focuses on the methods used, often consciously and informally, to adapt messages for particular environments. For example if relationship building is an important component of the interaction, face-to-face communication is preferred to allow one to see how the message is received and to adapt accordingly. If efficiency and record keeping is paramount, written messages are likely to be more effective. From our interviewee reports in the previous section, the technicians view their environment as legal, paradoxical, ambiguous, contentious, and occasionally capricious. Here are direct quotes of the ten strategies they follow in response to that perceived environment.

  • 1. Position your request in a strategic sequence . "What’s critical is Logistics Group Commander Support. For example, I’m doing a message now for his signature that he needs to sign off on at his level, asking Depot to provide us with the tools and the training to install this [item] ourselves. I know up front that that’s going to be resisted. I’m expecting a disapproval. But I want the position in writing before this conference [with the Depot]. If the disapproval comes down, and I go to the commander first, since he signed off on the message, and he looks at that and says, ‘Well, guys, sorry. Tough luck,’ and we go down and say, ‘Sir, we think we have good argument,’ and if he doesn’t support us, he says, ‘No, I don’t want to fall on my sword over this, guy. Sorry;’ you know, he’s our boss. The issue’s dead right there."
  • 2. Develop procedures and keep careful documentation . "Things [i.e., the procedures for getting an initiative approved by the Depot] evolved into six parts. Like I said, there’s no regulation that says you even have to do that. But we understand that we’ve got to manage different initiatives that we do, and we’ve got to do it so everything’s approved, everything’s legal, [and so] that our bosses are informed of what we’re doing and have a record of things."
  • 3. Develop powerful alliances . "We’re a training base. Our major command is Air Education Training Command. However, the real power broker in the F-15 community is not AETC. It’s Headquarters ACC [Air Combat Command] out of Langley. Their F-15s, you know, have real missions as opposed to training missions. And if you convince them—they backed us on a lot of our other successes. And if they’re not backing you, you can almost forget about it. You could look at Langley as a very strong ally. When ACC says it, they’re speaking on behalf of front-line fighter F-15 units."
  • 4. Scan for problems and point out to the Depot opportunities for savings . "So what we believe we have here is basically a mismanaged item that should be managed at Depot level. Instead of throwing these away, you should ship them back—the bad ones back to Depot—so they can fix them or at least know what the usage is. What we believe we have here is a disaster—a supply disaster waiting to happen. We’re already starting to see it."
  • 5. Have patience; getting acceptance for a change takes time . "So we’re waiting on proof of the repair concept—if this test is positive and passes, which we hope. That’s one issue with this thing. That’s an issue we’ve been working for a long time. It took us a long time just to get to that. They were resistant to having these out and repaired by a local source."
  • 6. "Watch out for excess ego involvement . We’ve been there. We’ve almost gone to jail. We’ve been there. You feel a lot of stuff, if you resolve the technical issues. You’ve got a lot of personal issues involved—pride and ownership and all that stuff you got to deal with, too."
  • 7. Realize the community you are in is small and memory is long. Your requests are interrelated and not judged independently . "It’s a kind of a small, small world in the F-15 community. . . . We’ve had our problems because we’ve fought really hard on this one right here. And we lost. We fought just real hard two, three years in a row at conferences. . . . We lost both battles just on this issue. And that other one wasn’t even up for consideration. [The Depot engineers] said, ‘If you don’t let this slide the way it is, then I will take this away, too.’ And he did."
  • 8. Keep your own organization informed about your networking . "Interviewer, following up on contact with higher-ups in Air Combat Command): You can call them? It’s not a breach of protocol to just pick up the phone and say I got something? ( Technician): "No. But when we do that, I like to tell our major command that we talked."
  • 9. When conflict is anticipated, use written message format and follow the chain of command in communication . "If I sense or we believe it’s going to be political, it’s going to be a fight, or if we believe that they’re going to be resistant, then I would be more apt—before I talked to them—to do it formally. Do it by message format, which would go through our commander and then to them."
  • 10. Remember the importance of sensitivity and patience . "Whatever discipline is, you may like working on jets, but you’ve got to understand the politics of it. You’ve got to go through the right chains on certain things. And you’ve got to be able to fight and get slam-dunked. And you just keep pressing."

While our analysis of AFI 21-123 was primarily concerned with work rules and the constitution of organizational change, this section focuses on the communicative actions used by the technicians to inaugurate an operational rule change. This set of practices emphasizing the micro-politics involved in getting one’s maintenance proposals accepted wasn’t anticipated in the interviews, but instead resulted from the interviewees’ perspective on what was important. The behaviors they codified are crucial to this study of rule change because AFI-21-123 creates a structure for this kind of communication, although it gives no hint of its occurrence. The rules followed here are the tacit knowledge of how to do the job (Senker, 1994). According to Teece and Pisano (1994), this tacit knowledge is not an aberration, but the distinctive competence of the organization; it is something that cannot be imported or bought, but must be developed internally. This seems true for this case. It is hard to imagine the technicians achieving the purposes of AFI-21-123 without them.

ConstitutiveTheory and This Case

In the two previous sections we have used our case study of the implementation of TQM at Barnstorm Air Force base to make visible the changes brought about in the rules of work and the tacit rules of communication. Both the work rules and the communicative rules are two components of the relationship between structure and agency so important to structuration theory. Yet, we have also wanted to use this case study to point to the complex interaction between different structures and different forms of agency. To take advantage of this system of complex interaction between different components of structure and agency we have suggested the concept of constitutive proceduralism. At this point, we would like to draw a sharper focus on the constitutive consequences associated with organizational change generated by the internalization of the TQM procedures by the technicians. There are four broad issues at stake: 1) work rules 2) models of communication 3) norms of practical action and 4) the entrepreneurial self (du Gay, 1996).

Work Rules

The first conclusion we can draw from this study is the manner in which TQM contributed to the (re) constitution of U.S. Air Force maintenance through a transformation in the rules governing the repair procedures on specific parts for the F-15 and F-16. For Giddens the process of constitution takes place through the dialectical relationship between structure and action. In our case we have been looking at a particular structural form, the operational rules affecting repair of fighter planes in the U.S Air Force. Yet two different rule structures are interacting in this case. The first concerns AFI-21-123 mandating the use of TQM as a method for improving the repair process—what in this study we have identified as a meta-rule. The second set of rules concern whether or not a particular repair meets the dual standard of cost-effectiveness and operational safety institutionalized in the Secretary of the U.S. Air Force's Technical Orders (TO's)—the operational rules associated with the practical action of repairing aircraft. AFI-21-123 empowers the technicians to become self-conscious of the second set of rules so as to contribute to the transformation of TO's in a way that might improve quality. The inability of the technicians to put into words the TQM rules mandated by AFI -21-123 points to how TQM has become a routine procedure giving form to the daily operations of this group within the U.S. Air Force. The inability to say what is being done while at the same time putting a particular rule into operation is a process that Giddens (1984) refers to as practical consciousness. However, the ability of the technicians to describe for us a complex series of communicative and organizational strategies that they used in the service of changing the TO's testifies to a high degree of discursive consciousness (Giddens, 1984). The concept of discursive consciousness describes what someone is capable of putting into words while the concept of practical consciousness describes that tacit, taken-for-granted knowledge that makes possible the reproduction of a particular social practice. For example, practical consciousness describes how a person routinely drives from home to work, once the person internalizes the route and can make the drive without much thought. On the other hand, discursive consciousness refers to ability to describe the route to follow in order to get from home to work.

For the U.S. Air Force technicians, the need for accountability over proposed changes in the particular repair procedures and the self-risk built into the process of arguing for a change in a particular repair procedure had a specific effect. It contributed to the ability of the technicians to re-call, in much more detail, how they might improve the repair process as well as how they might be able to make that solution part of the U.S. Air Force's repair manual.

The relationship between discursive consciousness and the constitution of the rules of F-15 and F-16 repair allows us to show an important relationship between Giddens' structuration theory and Habermas's (1984) theory of communicative action. Structuration theory and communicative action share an emphasis on practical action as a constitutive feature in the production of rationality. While the theory of communicative action allows for an investigation into concrete instances of communication as a form of practical action, Habermas de-emphasizes the strategic nature of practical discourse. Instead he emphasises an abstract search for the universal normative grounds guiding moral-practical action (1984, pp. 281-285). To be sure, Habermas's (1979) notion of "universal pragmatics" offers a counterfactual ground for the critique of the forms of distortion (economic and administrative imperatives) which block the possibility of speech oriented toward genuine understanding (Deetz, 1992 ). For example, in our case study, the technicians are highly conscious of how the communication process organized to initiate change is affected by bureaucratic distortions. Distorting elements include the chain of command, turf battles over the authority to make changes, and the ways in which threats to that authority in one area can negatively influence another request to change a different repair rule. In this way, the communicative and organizational strategies that we outlined earlier can also serve as evidence for communicative action undertaken to create a shared world of mutual understanding based on the ability of social actors to give good reasons to support their practical action.

However, Giddens would resist the attempt to limit our understanding of practical action to communicative action. For Giddens, communicative action and the ability to redeem the universal pragmatics of specific communicative encounters risks the reduction of practical action to a normative theory of rationality that privileges discursive consciousness to the detriment of practical consciousness. For Habermas, the rationalization of society requires the ability of social actors to make explicit the normative grounds that are embedded in the content of their communicative behaviors. The problem here is that the important role of practical consciousness in the constitution of an organization's ability to reproduce itself is lost if the only form of rationality made legitimate is that form redeemable in and through communicative action. The concept of constitutive proceduralism makes visible the integrated relationship between the practical consciousness of TQM and the discursive consciousness activated by the need to bring about changes in the operational rules governing the repair process of an F-15 part. By keeping in mind the interaction between the two different rule structures we can see how these rules both constitute the behaviors of the U.S. Air Force technicians at the same time as the U.S. Air Force technicians are empowered to bring about a change in the rule structures affecting their work environment. In this way, the technicians' relationship to the constitution of their work rules expresses a relationship that Giddens calls the "dialectic of structure." In other words, the structure (the rules) and the practical action of the technicians (agency) are mutually constitutive; the rules are not simply imposed as an external form of social control generating systemic distortion but become open to the process of organizational transformation.

This case has a high emphasis on agency. In popular management literature it is called "action bias" (Peters, 1982) and in the academic literature (Weick, 1995) "action rationality." And where does this example exhibiting the salience of agency and interpretation come from? A mechanical, rule-driven environment that has unimaginable risk attached to its decision-making. A popular members’ view in the U.S. Air Force itself has always been that it is a human system, that it would rather be a human-driven organization than defer to a mechanical system. Agency represents the human value in this case and it is a product of the sense of mission in the group, a sense of mission that is unequaled in our 45 case data set. Because the goal—to keep the airplanes flying—was clear, action was easier. Technicians could correctly answer the question: Does this action support and move forwards our mission and goals?

As the early research on the effectiveness of teams shows (Vroom and Yetton, 1973), one way to galvanize groups is to involve low-level participants in solutions—to make them a part of the action such that they volunteer their energy and effort and de-emphasize the procedure they’re following. The technicians seemed particularly averse to acknowledging any effect of the TQM method as represented by the Quality training they received on this U.S. Air Force Base. Instead, they tell it as a story of individual achievement.

In some major ways this de-emphasis is another example of the feature and spirit components of structuration theory (De Sanctis and Poole, 1994) that we reported in earlier work emphasizing TQM methodology (Browning, Sitkin, & Sutcliffe, 1998 ). The irony in our present data is that the interviewees actively deny that they’re following TQM practices. Yet when one reads the instruction they were given—a directive to find and sell efficient repair techniques and products—it is clear that they are following it exactly . And the regulation is certainly evidence for several Quality methods, especially the human-relations item from the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria (4.0) that requires individuals to show evidence of plans and programs that increase low-level member participation. AFI-21-123 is such evidence.

Models of Communication

We have previously noted Habermas’s desire for a normative theory of communicative action and Giddens’ emphasis on how communication contributes to the constitution of organization in and through the stretching of social practices across time and space. We take the tension between these theories as a way of exploring a second constitutive feature highlighted in our study. This second constitutive feature concerns the models of communication produced by the meta-rule of AFI-21-123 and how this form of communicative action in turn contributes to the organizational change in the operational rules affecting the repair of F-15 and F-16 fighter planes. Robert Craig (1999 ) argues that a key insight of the constitutive perspective for communication is that it can serve as a meta-model for describing how different communication theories conceptualize the process of communication. Craig's insight allows us to be even more specific and focus on how different organizations generate models of communication for dealing with organizational problems, products, and processes. In this study, we have outlined the use of ten tacit rules of communication associated with the effort to change an operational rule. The U.S. Air Force contributed to the production of communicative action by setting up a widely public form of information sharing that crossed the branches of the military as well as civilian-military lines. Finally the procedure gave technicians the authority to obtain institutional approval for their solutions. At this point we can enrich our findings theoretically by extracting from these ten rules a particular set of rules for deliberation that constitute the rules of talk when the air force technicians argue for their particular rule changes.

The complex communicative and organizational strategies activated by the technicians to bring about a change in the repair process make visible how communicative action itself is open to the dialectic of structure and agency. The ten tacit rules of communicative action outlined in the case study point to a specific model of communication with its own unique rules and resources that we want to call a deliberative model. The relationship between communicative action and deliberation concerns how we structure our talk in order to make judgments about how we should organize our collective lives.

In the introduction we remarked that Hicks and Langsdorf’s (1999) concept of constitutive proceduralism deals specifically with how disagreement is regulated through particular rules of talk. While we have expanded their concept of constitutive proceduralism, it is nevertheless useful to examine the four areas that they propose underpin the rules for deliberative communication. (1) Who can talk (Identity); (2) On what issues (Substance); (3) How participants should talk (Locution); and (4) where this talk can take place (Forum). These deliberative rules are quickly learned and become a form of tacit or practical consciousness that guides the behaviors of the U.S. Air Force technicians. At the same time, technicians are aware of the self-risk involved in any argumentative encounter (Natanson, 1965). Therefore, one can expect a high level of discursive consciousness, that is, an awareness of what can be said to their team and to the Depot, and what responses are likely to occur because of these communicative behaviors. In other words, the uncertainty built into the strategic nature of communication generates the high level of discursive consciousness.

The first rule structuring a deliberative model of communication identifies who can speak. AFI-21-123 gives the technicians the authority to speak about the possibility of changing the rules associated with repairing F-15 aircraft. At the same time, the authority to make a final judgment to change the rules governing the repair of a specific part is in the hands of the Civilian Depot. Yet, as a sign of the strategic nature of this encounter between the technicians and the Civilian Depot, we witnessed the attempt of the technicians to garner the support of the F-15 and F-16 flight commanders. If we recall that the two key criteria of cost savings and operational safety have to be met, the support of the flight commanders is a crucial component in the deliberative economy produced by AFI-21-123. All the different participants authorized to speak do so on the basis of their particular expertise. Yet, the technicians have learned that they can strengthen their arguments when they enter into a particular alliance with the pilots. An alliance between the technicians and the pilots does not guarantee that the Civilian Depot will authorize the rule change. Nonetheless, the strategic awareness of the technicians to the importance of the expertise of the fighter pilots makes visible how the ability to speak is pre-conditioned on a particular authority to speak.

The technicians’ different types of expertise points to the second constitutive rule, the substance of the communication. They are empowered to speak about cost savings and the operational safety of the repair through the initiation of diagnostic tests that allow for measurement and experimentation. They are given room to use their technical expertise to support their arguments for rule changes in the repair process. The ten strategies used by the technicians for initiating an operational change in the repair procedures also points to the strategic demands of making the particular topic areas meaningful and, therefore, worthy of consideration by the Civilian Depot.

The third communication rule concerns locution or the forms of talk. The technicians' messages are structured by the chain of command, the use of written and spoken forms of communication, and the specific need to document the methods used in determining the success or failure of a particular repair process. Recall also the use of the PERT Chart to help the air force technicians, through a series of yes/no answers, to generate evidence that would support the dual criteria of cost savings and operational safety. The importance of locutionary rules concerns the force of a particular type of communicative behavior, that is, how a particular type of communicative form is valued. In this case, we show how putting things into the logic of the PERT chart was a valued locutionary form because it made possible the framing of the evidence for change within a shared set of criteria that could support agreement about a particular judgment.

Finally, the deliberation is procedurally institutionalized in a particular forum. As we indicated, the U.S. Air Force has set up a Repairs Initiatives Conference as a particular deliberative space for resolving problems associated with particular repair issues as well as problems that might arise between the different agents negotiating a particular rule change.

This deliberative model of communication is important component of our broader understanding of constitutive proceduralism for two reasons. First, this deliberative model is a constitutive effect of bringing TQM into the U.S. Air Force repair process. In so doing, it generates communication as a particular type of practical action necessary to initiate, mediate, and transform the practical action of repairing an aircraft. Second, the deliberative model of communication not only mediates between the meta-rule and the operational rules, it also has a unique set of rules that are open to transformation at the same time as they structure the communicative behaviors of the air force technicians. While Hicks and Langsdorf (1999) use constitutive proceduralism to describe the rules of talk, we have expanded its use to focus more carefully on the different levels of structure and agency set loose by the effort to generate organizational change.

Norms of Practical Action

The interaction between the meta-rule of AFI 21-123 and the operational rules of airplane repair was initiated for the purpose of generating quality as a norm for both regulating practical action and as a consequence of practical action. While our case study focused on the complex invention and transformation of work rules and communicative rules, the broader perspective of constitutive proceduralism points us to how the very norms of practical action are being invented, maintained and transformed. In this case the norm up for institutionalization and constitutive transformation is, of course, quality.

Thus a third contribution to a theory of constitutive proceduralsim supported by our case study is that quality is not a pre-constituted goal that exists outside of the interaction between organizational procedures and talk. Anthony Giddens' (1984) theory of structuration reminds us that the constitution of an organization takes place through the "stretching" of social activities across time and space. As a method to generate quality, the Air Force, through training and regulation has begun to deploy TQM throughout its different repair units. However, to put TQM to use requires an investment in communicative actions as key determining factors in the creation of quality. Since it is the process that generates improvement in quality, the key factors that help define quality are unique to the particular organizations using the method. In this case, the two key criteria determining quality are cost savings and the operational safety of the plane. In the high-risk situation described in this case, cost savings must be accompanied by operational safety, while operational safety can function as a trump card blocking specific cost saving initiatives. We have demonstrated how the institutionalization of TQM in the AFI-21-123 set loose a series of innovative solutions to particular repair problems that contributed to first order and second order learning, learning which generated both cost savings and the operational safety of the F-15. While, arguably, we are looking at a highly successful situation, the ability of AFI-23-123 to authorize the Air Force technicians to "look for a better way" enabled the technicians to become agents in the creation of a shared understanding of quality in the day-to-day routine of the Air Force. The instruction and therefore the potential is the same for all Air Force Maintenance units.

The Entrepreneurial Self

Finally, the fourth constitutive lesson we can draw from these data is the role of procedures in the transformation of the self. In other words, a type of person-formation is an outcome of the interaction between the different rules guiding practical action in this particular case study. It is important not to lose sight of this particular component of constitutive proceduralism. The type of person created by the interaction between structure and agency is important because he/she contributes to the stretching of the organization’s norms of practical action. In this case, the interaction between the procedures of TQM, the procedures governing the repair of particular fighter planes, and the procedures associated with the deliberation process all contribute to the creation of an entrepreneurial self.

Look what the access to the Internet meant to the technicians as they solved problems. In the past, problem solving was limited to repairing defective parts. Now, technicians were focusing on using the Internet to locate either replacement parts or companies that could do the repairs themselves more cheaply. Their behavior was ultimately entrepreneurial in that the Internet allows for the two types of value—use value and exchange value—defined in Taussig, 1980. "Use value" refers to how the product is used: What does it mean to have this item? "Exchange value" refers to the financial success of the commercial interaction: Where can I find this product and at what price? In this instance, both use value and exchange value occur. Use value drives the technicians' search for a solution and the actual financial outcome ends up being exchange value.

An entrepreneurial self describes how a person learns to extract exchange value out of his/her knowledge. In recent management literature driving the re-organization of the private and public sphere (Peters, 1992; Osborne and Gaebler, 1992) an entrepreneurial self is meant to replace the bureaucratic self, or in the words of another author, the "organizational man" (Whyte, 1956). For the technicians in this study, the practical requirement to make more out of less made all the more urgent by a funding mechanism that will limit the availability of money for repairs before the end of the fiscal year contributes to the creation of this entrepreneurial self. The U.S. Air Force technicians are encouraged to find ways to make money, to capitalize on their innovations, either through efficiency gains in the repair process, for example, finding ways to repair a product instead of buying a new product or through selling their repair process to other squadrons in the U.S. Air Force and other branches of the military.


This paper has focused on a case example of constitutiveness by showcasing the change skills, technical and tacit, of a unit of aircraft repair technicians. The constitution of the technicians' behavior is evident in their repair actions, their consciousness of communication practices, and their success. Their doing well at following the rules while actively denying that they follow them is a paradox. Giddens (1984) says that such paradoxes are the energy source for organizations.

Giddens’ claim rings true for this case—especially for AFI-21-12. After all, it is a meta-rule that challenges the technician to change the rules. If a "Catch 22" is irrational and binds people up by rules no matter which direction they take, AFI-21-12 empowers technicians to break the rules of those above them—so that they might create new opportunities for the U.S. Air Force.


[1] The authors gratefully acknowledge support from the National Science Foundation (Grant No. SBR-94-96229 and SBR-94-20461) and the United States Air Force (Grant No. USAF-F49642-97-P-0083) for the program of research on which this paper is based.


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Figure 1

Interview Schedule for Cases

1. Describe your unit and your unit’s responsibilities.

a. Tell us about your role in the organization. What does your project, department, team or project group do and what is your role in it? How has this changed in the past couple of years?

b. How well understood/certain/routine is your job and/or the unit’s primary task responsibility?

c. Who is the customer(s)?

d. What is the time horizon for projects?

2. The terms quality and total quality management mean many things to many people. How do you or the people in your unit define quality? Would the answer be different in other parts of the organization?

3. Organizations confront many different types of problems. These problems are sometimes well-understood, either because you have encountered them before or they involved doing better what you already do. These problems often have standard solutions that have been tried before, or solutions that other organizations in the same industry have tried and that simply need to be implemented. At other times, problems are new or unfamiliar and there aren’t standard solutions, or the standard ones that have been tried don’t seem to fit. Can you think of one or more projects that illustrate:

a. A perfect fit between the problem and the use of TQM tools and techniques—one that worked especially well;

b. A situation where TQM worked, but only after fairly substantial adaptation of the technique;

c. where TQM did not fit the problem and, thus, was not used, or was used but encountered difficulties.

Project Data Collection. Our methods for data collection are primarily interviewing and document analysis. To complete the interviews on projects once selected, we ask the following sets of questions:

1. Describe your specific project.

a. What problem is being solved? What is the purpose of the project?

b. What is your role in the project?

c. What exactly was done? What is the "story" of the project?

2. What TQM techniques were used? How and when were they used? By whom?

3. How effective or ineffective were these techniques?

a. What problems were encountered? Was there any resistance to using them? Be specific about both the problem and resistance.

b. How were problems handled? Were TQM methods used? Were they used in modified form?

c. What was done to control the problem? What was done to learn from the problem?

d. What did the quality methods do that would have been done anyway? Would the same results have been achieved if quality methods had not been used?

e. Overall, did TQM help or hurt? Why? Who are others who might see this differently than you?

4. How well does your firm/dept. understand the nature of your work and the work of your division?

a. What are examples of good or poor understanding?

b. Why do you think that they have this level of understanding?

c. Can you tell me about how you understand the task or problem?

5. Who else would be helpful in our gaining an understanding of what is going on with quality in this organization?

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