Despite the optimism which surrounded the advent of quality circles a decade ago, recent research suggests that there are few programmes still functioning. The data on which this article is based were collected in five organisations in central Scotland in the period 1983‐86, when quality circles were in operation or were being introduced. Since then, all but one of the programmes has ceased. The research indicates that the barriers encountered by quality circles are of two kinds: some general to any form of organisational change; others specific to quality circles. In addition, quality circles cannot easily be assimilated into existing organisational power structures but require changes to systems of reward, communication and decision making. Specifically the role played by middle managers is examined. They may see quality circles as a threat to their managerial prerogative and are in a position to impair the circles by denying them the resources (such as time, information, people and finance) they need to operate. Without the co‐operation of middle managers, the circles cannot select appropriate projects, collect data or implement solutions, and may find it impossible to continue.
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