Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Business


Continuous improvement (CI) is an important methodology adopted by the public sector, including local government, to drive process efficiencies and outcome effectiveness, often in response to financial pressures and increased customer demands driven by both state and federal governments (Burgess & Radnor 2012; Pedersen 2011; Radnor, Z. 2010; Rashman & Radnor 2005; Suarez Barraza et al. 2009). Moreover, the adoption of neoliberal policies to drive such imperatives has resulted in CI being enacted in ways that are often removed from the practice traditions presented by the early quality theorists of Crosby, Juran, Deming and Imai. The decontextualised approach to CI has seen the implementation of a range of quality frameworks, such as Australian Business Excellence or Lean Thinking, being implemented. The introduction and adoption of such frameworks has often been met with cynicism and caution by both CI practitioners and staff, as organisations have not always achieved the sought after gains frequently promised. For local government, CI practices have come to mean the application of a narrow range of tools. Most recently, the traditions, practices and frameworks which have been the foci on improvement have shifted to see the implementation of yet a new framework, which in the context of NSW local government has come to be known as service reviews (see for example: Pepper et al. 2021; University of Technology 2020, 2021) as the gold standard that has worked to reconfigure how CI is enacted within the NSW local government.

This research explores ways in which, for NSW local government contexts, the fundamental activity and CI practice of problem definition could be reconfigured in ways which bring it closer to practice traditions of seminal theorists such as Deming and Imai. In this thesis the literatures of action learning sets (Anderson and Thorpe 2004; Bird and Duffy 2021; Norman 2016) and CI are brought together to foreground problem definition statements, action and critical reflection and the essential nature of these in the day-to-day enactment of CI practice within NSW local government (see for example Crosby 1989; Deming 1986; Ghobadian and Speller 1994; Imai 1986; Juran 1995). Through the introduction of action learning set practices at a number of NSW local government sites, this research has foregrounded the relational complexity of CI that enacted neoliberalist policies have ignored. In bringing workers together to enact practices of problem definition, action and reflection, the Action Learning Sets (ALS) have emerged as sites where it is possible to reinstate or indeed reinvigorate the lost practice traditions of CI.

FoR codes (2008)

150313 Quality Management



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.