Transformative power of quality circles

The Transformative Power of Quality Circles in Modern Business

Introduction

Like most good ideas, the basic concept of the quality circle is very simple – six or eight workers from your shop or department meet regularly under the leadership of a foreman or section head to examine work problems that affected the quality of output, and to recommend solutions to those problems.

This simple structure and seemingly obvious function made it easy to dismiss Quality Circles as just another variation on existing techniques – committees, suggestion schemes and all the other well-known and well-tried methods of seeking to improve quality and raise productivity.

 

The Genesis of Quality Circles: Tracing the Roots from Japan to Global Adoption

The original development of Quality Circles, in fact, took place in Japan where they were adopted as an essential part of that country’s plan – fuelled by urgent economic need – to become a front-rank industrial nation. I was amazed by the Japanese success in this respect, which was today abundantly clear – yet the very idea of a Japanese car on British roads would have been considered a joke 60 years ago and now both China and India were following the same path using the same concepts as emerged in Japan.

Today’s large Japanese market share, however, rested in large measure on an undeniable reputation for product quality and reliability now being emulated throughout the Far East.

Of course, no single concept or management policy had been responsible for the extraordinary success of Japan. However, the employment of Quality Circles on a massive scale throughout Japanese industry had undoubtedly played a very significant role.

Join Kola Olutimehin and I in May 2024 for the Japan Quality Tour to learn about Quality Circles and see how they’ve shaped Japan’s technology and industries. It’s a great chance to see Japan’s commitment to quality and efficiency up close.

Interestingly, Students at the David Hutchins International Quality College (DHIQC), who will attending the Japan quality tour will  have the opportunity get some of their course credits waived for them. Here is the opportunity you have been waiting for.

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Paradigm Shift: From Directive Management to Collaborative Quality Circles

I found the quality circle to be radically different from all other techniques both in concept and in manner of operation.

The Quality Circle worked from the bottom up, drawing directly on the knowledge and skills at shop-floor level – an unfamiliar approach to those who was accustomed to applying ‘top-down’, management techniques.

Even more surprisingly, perhaps it was an entirely self-directing operation – yet still a full part of the organisation. This self-directing bottom-up approach was crucial to success; a clear grasp of the implications is essential for any manager wishing to introduce the concept, since the approach is diametrically opposite to the received wisdom of much Western management policy.

As a top quality management expert and author of the best-selling Self-management Workgroup book, quality circle, is a proven way to improve quality, productivity, safety, and morale in the workplace, as well as to foster a culture of continuous improvement and learning.

Despite the growth of consultation and devolved responsibility in quality circle, the doctrines of ‘scientific’ management died hard and the worker was little more than an extension of the machine or desk.

At the same time, responsibility was removed from the foreman and passed to specialists – quality engineers, work study engineers, production engineers, inspectors, and so on. Even labour relations were handled by the personnel department.

As a result, a gulf is created between worker and manager. The foreman cannot provide leadership, because he lacks authority, and also through lack of training, he is ill-equipped to handle many of the problems which arise. Yet in a great many cases the man on the duckboard is the real expert: however, his knowledge and experience lie untapped, because nobody has bothered to ask him – or to ask in the right way.

The Impact of Quality Circles on Industry Giants

I saw the concept of quality circle making its mark today in countries as diverse as China, Brazil, Korea, Norway, Sweden, and India, and in firms such as TATA Steel and Motherson with their roots in India spreading through their operations world-wide – which suggested that the concept is widely applicable and not rooted in the characteristics of a particular national culture.

Nevertheless, the benefits that stemmed from the introduction of Quality Circles are tangible, substantial, and proven. For example, when the UK first experimented with the concept in the late 1970s, at Rolls-Royce’s Aero Division in Derby, I observed the savings in 30 months amounting to £525,000. (The items contributing to this total included a reduction in defective welds on turbine blades from 24% to 1-8%.

Investigation showed a need to amend the weld parameters and increase the ‘slope-out’ (the time taken for the electron welding beam to decay) from 8 seconds to 12 seconds. Savings from November 1979 to August 1980 came to £57, 760. (worth £360,000 pounds today) Machining problems on turbine blades, leading to a scrap rate of 4%, were also investigated. They were rectified by clearing up the workspace and reorganising the layout of equipment. Scrap was reduced to 0.5% as a result for an annual saving of £26.000.

The savings can range from huge sums in large companies to relatively small amounts that make a large difference to comparatively small firms. To give other examples of cost savings achieved through Quality Circles: reduction of time lost through conflicting job instructions in one company was worth £165,454; on time lost in locating precision tools, the saving was £71,363; elimination of oil leaks contaminating materials was worth £1,890; while tinplate finish problems were solved at a saving of £78,000. (all these values are the original numbers in 1978).

Indeed, I believed that Quality circles is not a fad, but a proven strategy to enhance workplace excellence, innovation, and collaboration. It has been successfully implemented by industry giants across the globe, resulting in significant cost savings, quality improvements, and customer satisfaction.

In conclusion, I am convinced that quality circles is the future of quality management, and the time to embrace them was now.

-David Hutchins, 2024