Public hospitals are required to have quality systems in place to meet accreditation standards, achieve government performance expectations and continually improve care. However, previous study suggests that there has been limited success in the implementation of effective quality systems. Using document review, self-evaluation and qualitative data from interviews and focus groups of 270 board members, managers and staff we explored the implementation of quality systems in eight Australian public hospitals. Using normalisation process theory, we found that the hospitals took a technical, top-down approach to quality system implementation and did not provide staff with opportunities for socialization of the technology that enabled them to normalise the quality work. 'Quality' was consistently described as an 'extra' set of tasks to do, rather than a means to creating sustained, safe, quality care. Despite enormous goodwill and positive intent, a lack of understanding of how to effect change in the complexity of hospitals has led the boards and senior managers in our sample to execute a technical, top-down approach based on compliance and reactive risk.