Quality Circle for Continous Improvement

Quality Circles: Bridging Cultures for Continuous Improvement


Quality Circles succeeded in tapping the huge resource of knowledge and skill, that resided in every workforce, doing so in a way that drew on, and fostered the very real human need or job satisfaction.

The resulting effort was applied in a manner which truly deserved the description ‘scientific’. Achieving this requires neither the application of some mysterious oriental philosophy nor the use of a magic formula.

However, what it demands is skill and patience in establishing the necessary practices, together with a firm commitment by the highest level of management to ensuring that, once a decision had been made to introduce Quality Circles, the necessary steps to enable them to function must be taken.


How Quality Circles Operate

The Quality Circle itself is a completely voluntary body. Nobody is paid to join. Nobody is forced to join, and nobody was penalised for not taking part. The motivation is solely the desire to do a constructive job or work and to find satisfaction in seeking the results of effort.

The Circle, once formed, set its terms of reference; selected for itself the problems it wished to tackle; and in due course presented its recommendations for their solution.

In other words, it functions organically, according to its own perceived needs – rather than compulsively in response to externally determined criteria. How can such an apparently ‘undisciplined’ body could possibly serve the ends of the organisation in which it operated – and which presumably existed to beat the opposition and make a profit in the process?

Well, the easiest way to describe the basic methods and techniques involved in the actual workings of a Quality Circle, is where the half-a-dozen or so workers from a given department would, in the first place, have been asked informally if they would like to take part.

Meetings take place once a week or once a month under a group leader – often a foreman or supervisor – who has previously been trained in basic statistical and problem-solving techniques, as well as in handling groups.

Indeed, the group leader’s most important function is to enable the people concerned to operate as a group, not as a bunch of individuals. Problems for possible solution by the Circle may be identified by anyone in the firm. They may arise, for example, from customer complaints, quality control feedback, management information, or from engineering or design departments.

Read Also:

The Historical Evolution of Quality Circles: Meaning, Features, Objectives, Techniques


Bridging the Gap: Quality Circles and Organisational Goals

Circles themselves often identify problems of which management may be unaware – like handling or damage problems, or shortcomings on job cards or specification sheets.

Actual selection of a problem for consideration is entirely up to the Circles – and it is vitally important to their successful operation that they be free to select for themselves the problems to be solved.

To ensure that the problems selected have a high practical value, a Pareto analysis may be carried out as the first step; this technique is specifically designed to focus on key areas, leaving aside those of relatively minor significance. Named after the Italian economist who enunciated its principles, Pareto analysis uses the fairly constant relationship between quantity and value, which is commonly approximately a 1: 4 ratios.

The best-known example is the fact that, of several items held in stock, approximately 20% will contribute 80% of the total stock value. This ratio held good for many situations, including quality problems. It was soon discovered that 80% of quality failures arose from only 20% of the possible causes, which would therefore be the most significant in cost terms.

Thus, plotting percentage contribution to cost produces a histogram, which will immediately reveal the costliest sources of failure. This enables attention to be directed towards these costly problems, instead of wasting effort on the numerically frequent, but financially insignificant items.

When the Circle has identified and then selected a problem that will repay examination, it next prepares a cause and effect diagram – sometimes referred to as a fishbone diagram, from its appearance. This technique calls for the definition of an occurrence (known as the effect), and then sets out diagrammatically all the possible causes of that occurrence, and where necessary, the sub-causes in turn.

At this stage, no attempt is made at detailed examination and evaluation of the causal factors suggested; rather, the Circle leader will seek to encourage contributions from all the members of the Circle and will draw up the resulting diagram.

Investigation and testing of the suggested causes for validity takes place at a subsequent meeting. This allows time for the various ideas put forward to be assimilated by the Circle. It also helps to ensure that the ideas themselves, rather than the people who suggested them, become the target of comment or criticism. By this later time, the ideas will be group property, rather than belonging to one individual.

During the investigation and the forming of solutions, the Circle will frequently need to consult with specialist departments, such as production engineering, quality control or design.

Top management’s determination to ensure that conditions enable the Circle to work effectively come into play here, since, at this stage, lack of support by middle management can make the Circle’s task either frustrating or impossible.

However, once specialist departments have some experience of working in conjunction with Quality Circles, they commonly become increasingly enthusiastic as they find people receptive to their ideas at shopfloor level.

At the same time, the shopfloor interest in collaborating with specialist departments has considerable appeal and is a strong motivating force in Circle operations. Real management commitment is also called for at the final stage of the process – the presentation of the Circle’s recommended solution to a problem.

Genuine commitment to implementing valid solutions is obviously essential to successful working. Recognition is a powerful motivator; inevitably, there will be circumstances in which a particular solution cannot be implemented, but it is vital to the continued enthusiasm of the Circle that if rejection is essential, the reasons are clearly and fully explained to the members. Nobody really wants to feel that the firm he works for produces poor quality products, and pride of achievement in helping to improve the company’s image is important.


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The Transformative Power of Quality Circles in Modern Business


The Impact of Quality Circles: Financial Gains and Union Perspectives

Two questions frequently asked about Quality Circles concern their worth in financial terms and the attitude of Unions towards them. In general terms, the return on investment in Quality Circles is between 5: 1 and 8: 1.

Over-emphasis by management on the cost-saving aspects in the early stages, however, will tend to distort the spirit behind the programme, but cost savings, in practice, are often very considerable.

As for the unions, if properly approached in the first place, they tend to be in favour of Quality Circles, seeing them as a way of improving the job satisfaction of their members. Shop stewards often become very enthusiastic members of Circle groups. However, the way in which management approaches the question of introducing Quality Circles is crucial to success.

Careful preparations are needed, and the disarmingly simple nature of the concept makes it all too easy for the over-zealous consultant or manager to lead his client or firm along the primrose path to failure. Inertia among workers who are suspicious of management motives must be overcome, as does that of middle managers who are sceptical about yet another so-called panacea.

For these reasons among others, it is often better to get professional outside help from those with a good track record of success in these initial stages. A good consultant will design a programme which allows the client to take over the subsequent development as soon as possible.

An early step in the introduction of any programme is the appointment of a Facilitator (to ‘facilitate’ means to make easy), generally from within the company. The person’s tasks will include training Circle leaders, co-ordinating Circle activities, assisting inter-Circle operations and obtaining specialist advice from other departments where necessary. Their personality must
enable them to get on well with people at all levels, so the appointment calls for careful selection.


Why do Quality Circles work?

Because – unlike so many other concepts – they involve people. Management commitment, careful preparation of the groundwork, and a gradual
introduction without fanfares are the key factors in their successful establishment in a business. The basic techniques applied to the Quality Circle, moreover, are applicable to any situation where people work together, and are as relevant in a bank or hotel as they are in a foundry or factory.

Quality Circles are not, of course, an instant remedy for every industrial ill. But their value has been demonstrated time and again. No organisation has anything to fear from Quality Circles properly applied: a great many companies have much to gain.

More on this can be found in my latest book Self Managing Workgroups, which is now part of my trilogy including Hoshin Kanri – the Strategic Approach to Continuous Improvement and Quality Beyond Borders – An International Award-winning book pointing out ‘ Quality Universal’!