This article explains the concept of a Quality Circle in a practical way. After reading it, you will understand the basics of this powerful quality management tool.
What is a Quality Circle?
A Quality Circle is a participation management technique to manage and improve the quality of the entire organisation. The power of a Quality Circle comes from mutual trust between managers and employees, which leads to more mutual understanding. The purpose of a Quality Circle is to build towards a good relationship with employees, so they will show more interest and devotion in the work they do. This will result in increased quality, productivity and cost reduction.
Quality circles first appeared in Japan. It was Japanese professor Kaoru Ishikawa who first used the term quality circles and made it accessible in his 1985 manual ‘What is Total Quality Control? The Japanese Way’. The underlying idea was to systematically include employees from all levels in the organisation-wide production of quality.
Many businesses in Europe and the United states also adopted working with quality circles, including Hewlett-Packard and Coleman. The latter business started with quality circles when the lifespan of a torch battery did not meet expectations. A quality circle of engineers eventually helped solve the problem. Quality circles are primarily about identifying problems to then lead to suggestions for solutions of these problems.
Employees show more loyalty and devotion to their organisation when they are open to collaboratively define and solve problems concerning quality or performance. This is easiest when it concerns smaller teams of approximately 3 to 12 people. In this, it is a requirement that they voluntarily participate in the quality circle and meet regularly. The concept of the quality circle is based on mutual respect, in which there is no place for assumptions and suspicion. The small group is best led by a manager. It is important that the participants in the quality circle have the correct knowledge and are trained beforehand by the so-called facilitators; experts in the area of personnel and employment relationships.
Quality circles offer employees the opportunity to use all their experience, knowledge and creativity to bring improvement into their activities. They are able to convert challenging problems into opportunities with the solution they offer themselves. Employees are generally free to select subjects in the quality circles. Some typical subjects that are extremely suitable for discussion in circles are improvements concerning health and safety at work, improvement concerning the workplace and concerning production processes and the product design.
To truly do quality circles justice, it is important to meet several conditions. In the first place, the mood needs to be relaxed. People need to feel comfortable and be free to share their own opinion. Every member of the quality circle also needs to get their turn. This is the only way for employees to feel involved and be interested, which will motivate them to contribute. There is also a need to determine a clear goal, so everyone knows what is expected of them. People need to be open to each other’s point of view and listen to all opinions. If an action emerges, clear agreements must be made that are accepted by all employees.
To contribute to a quality circle, it is recommended to first create a quality control group within the organisation, which is represented by managers that know production, quality control and process planning. This control group’s task is to follow the quality circle.
A facilitator will also need to be appointed, as well as a chair who is capable of getting all conversations in the circle to run smoothly. Apart from the responsibility to lead a quality circle, they need to give each employee the opportunity to participate in the discussion and motivate them to come up with creative ideas. The chair is in close contact with the facilitator.
The facilitator functions as a link between top management, the quality circle and its members and middle management. They coordinate training courses, so all employees know the ins and outs of working in a quality circle. Another task of the facilitator is to create support and get support from everyone involved with the quality circle.
Quality circles can only function when there is an interest in letting go of hierarchy. Where managers set themselves up as leaders, employees will not be motivated to participate in the circle. Employees can also not be expected to participate in the meetings of the quality circles outside office hours or without payment. An organisation would do well to integrate this into work time. Finally, problems that are raised by employees must not be allowed to be ignored. It is precisely the aim to improve the quality in all levels of the organisation.
It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Is the concept of a Quality Circle applicable in your personal or professional environment? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for good participation management?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Hill, S. (1991). Why quality circles failed but total quality management might succeed. British journal of industrial relations, 29(4), 541-568.
- Hutchins, D. (1985). Quality circles handbook. Pitman.
- Kaoru, I. (1985). What is Total Quality Control: the Japanese Way.
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