Quality Circles, what are they? A Quality Circle is:


`Definition based on the original Japanese definition. 'A small group of between three and twelve people who do the same or similar work, voluntarily meeting together regularly for about an hour per week in paid time, usually under the Leadership of their own supervisor, and trained to identify, analyse, and solve some of the problems in their work, presenting solutions to management, and where possible, implementing the solutions themselves.’

1   A small group of three to twelve people

The Circle should be seen as a team and not as a committee. The workgroup in which the members are employed must also see it as their section’s Circle’ and not as an elite group in their work area. Although some members of the workgroup may not wish to participate in the weekly meetings, Circle members should actively encourage them to make suggestions and solicit their ideas on Circle projects. Of course they should also make sure that they give them credit for their ideas and not claim them as their own.

Q. What if there are more people in the work area wanting to join?

If the work area contains more enthusiasts than can be included in one Circle, additional Circles may be formed progressively once the earlier Circles have become established. Those as yet unfamiliar with Quality Circles specifically may fear that such a development can lead to conflict and rivalry between groups, but this is extremely rare. It is far more likely that they will co- operate with each other, even helping to collect data for each other’s projects, and occasionally, if need arises, form cross Circle subgroups for the solution of specific problems. Such developments are a sign of maturity in Circle activities and are to be encouraged wherever possible.

Q. What if the work area is too small to form a Circle?

In cases where there are only one, two or three people in the work area, it may not be possible to form them into a Circle, but usually, they will have considerable interaction with other more heavily populated sections. Not only will there be plenty of opportunity for them to become involved in the projects of Circles in these areas, but it may frequently happen that the Circle will repay the help that they give by working on some projects of their choice. Again this is a sign of maturity and cannot be expected in the early stages of development.

2`Voluntarily meeting together’ 

The meaning of the word `voluntarily’ is hard to define, but basically, in the context of Quality Circles, it means that no one has to join a Circle. People are free to join and free to leave. If someone joins a Circle and subsequently chooses to leave it, there should be no pressure, inquests or recriminations. Obviously, if someone drops out of a Circle it should be regarded as a danger signal that all might not be well in the group, and the Circle leaver should be discreetly asked the reason for leaving. If there is a problem, and it can be overcome, then that individual may, if he chooses to do so, return to the group if the opportunity exists.

Q. Why is it voluntary?

The fact that people join a Circle because they want to, rather than because they have to, means that they are prepared to work and have accepted the basic rules which have been laid down. The reality of this was very quickly learned by the Japanese when they first began Circles in 1962. Those companies which recognised the value of voluntariness soon developed strikingly more effective programmes than those in which membership was compulsory.

Q. How large a programme should we start off with?

Whilst the number of volunteers may be quite small in the early stages, when people may possibly be suspicious of management motives, the number should begin to increase dramatically as soon as the achievements of the earlier Circles become known and confidence is gained. If a pilot scheme of say five Circles is successful, then in a matter of days, weeks or months, depending upon the circumstances, people should be saying why can’t we have a Circle in our section?’ or why are all the Circles on the day shift? Why can’t we have a Circle on nights?’ and so forth.

Q. What happens if a manager does not want Circles in his or her department?

Do not worry about it. When managers from other departments realise that the areas with Circles are improving their performance, they will soon begin to request an equal opportunity. The fact that membership is voluntary does not mean that the organisation has to wait until people knock on the door and request a Circle to be formed. In the early stages most of the initial members of Circles have been invited to join but not compelled. They should be free to drop out at any time if they wish, even in the middle of training. In a sense, they are actually only volunteering to attend the next meeting, although dropping out is fortunately relatively rare.

3      `Meeting regularly for about an hour per week’ 

Whilst some variation in timing exists, it is generally agreed that when circumstances permit, the regular weekly meeting is preferred to once fort­nightly or to irregular times on a weekly basis. A regular meeting time is habit-forming, and the day of the meeting will soon be associated in the minds of the members as `Circle Day’ and in such cases, members are much less likely to forget to attend or inadvertently commit themselves to other tasks which conflict with the meeting time. This sometimes happens in other cases.

Q. Does it have to be an hour per week?

Two diametrically opposite attitudes are frequently taken to the idea of Circles meeting for an hour per week. Some people cannot imagine that much can be achieved in such a short time; others are more concerned that they might be losing 8 hours per week production from a group of 8 people. In the latter case, the facts show otherwise, for two important reasons.

1      Circles will usually agree to hold their meetings at a time which causes least interference with work schedules. For example, in process work, they may hold their meetings during a maintenance period, job changeover, or after comple­tion of the weekly work schedule. When this is impossible, they may agree to hold the meeting at the beginning or end of the shift, or during the lunch break. Of course, in these cases agreement as to payment will have to be reached.

2    One of the most striking benefits of Quality Circles is typically an increase in productivity which will more than compensate for the lost time. This is because Circle members are usually extremely conscious of the factors that interrupt their work, and these problems are likely to become early targets for a Quality Circle.

Q. What can they do in just one hour?

In the case of those concerned about the short length of Circle meetings, it must be recognised that Circles do not work in the same way as committees. Normally Circles do not keep minutes as such, or spend half the meeting time discussing minutes of the last meeting; they just get down to work straight away. The techniques used by the Circles and described in the next section are extremely effective when used in this type of small group activity, and both members and others are usually amazed how much they achieve in only one hour per week.

4   `In paid time’ 

We say in `paid time’ rather than normal working hours because there are some cases, such as those described above, when it becomes difficult or impossible to hold the meeting during scheduled work periods. This may be particularly relevant in shift work operations, when Circles may sometimes span shifts. If the Circle comprises members from each of three or more shifts, it may be possible to hold the meeting during an overlap between two shifts, but the members from other shifts will either miss the meeting, or have to attend outside shift time. The pay arrangements for this will have to be worked out between all concerned, not, of course, overlooking the views or the arrangements of non-Circle members. Contrary to popular belief, Circle members in Japan are also paid for their time when these situations arise.

5   `Under the Leadership of their own supervisor’ 

Q. Why should  the supervisor should be the Circle Leader?

Why cannot the Leader be selected or elected from the members of the group?’

Whilst there may be circumstances where this arrangement may be desirable or necessary, they are very few and far between. Even when this is the best alternative, it is rarely ever better than using the appointed supervisor.

Q. Will managers fear a loss of control?

Some managers who are unfamiliar with the working of Quality Circles sometimes fear that they will lose control and that the Quality Circle is a way of by- passing them. Supervisors might certainly fear this if they did not have the opportunity of being Circle Leaders. Additionally, they would fear that their workpeople might use the Circle as a means of highlighting the supervisor’s shortcomings and therefore regard the Circle as a threat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Management’s motives in setting up Quality Circles are to make better use of the existing structure, not to create alternatives.

Q. Will the Trades Unions object?

Not if the concept is explained to then properly.

Circles are concerned with work-related problems and not with grievances, wages, salaries or conditions of employment. If these items are contentious then the group must take them up through the appropriate channels in the usual way. Circles are not part of the bargaining, negotiating or grievance machinery, neither do they impinge upon the activities of those who are responsible for these aspects of a company’s affairs. Because the Circle is purely concerned with work-related problems, and because the supervisor is the appointed Leader of the group, it follows that direct supervisors should at least have the first option to be the Circle Leader.

Q. Does the supervisor always have to be the leader?

Once the group has been formed, the members, and others in the work area will quickly realise that it doesn’t matter who the Leader is because Circle decision-making is a totally democratic process. When the Circle members are in the meeting room together, everyone has one vote, and no one’s opinion is any more or less important than anyone else’s.

Q. Can you rotate the leadership?

The smart Circle Leader will soon learn that it is not easy to be both the Leader and to think up ideas at the same time, and so may, after a short time, offer to rotate the Leadership of each meeting around the group. Not only will this enable the official Circle Leader to contribute his or her own ideas, but it is also a very effective part of the people-building process, and gives confidence to the members of the group. A Leader who develops in this way will usually gain considerable respect from the members as a result.

Q. Can someone lead more than one Quality Circle?

If the work area is large, and there are others wishing to form a Circle, the Leader may allow the original Circle to become self-propelled while he forms a new Circle in the section. When this Circle has developed, the supervisor may then keep an eye on both groups. Should there be any reason why the supervisor cannot be, or does not want to be, the Circle Leader, then assuming the desire is there amongst the members of the work group, an alternative must be found. First of all, the supervisor must be given confidence that the Circle, if formed, will not constitute a threat to his or her authority, and the group should be made very much aware of this.

Q. How does the supervisor keep in touch when more than one Circle in the work area?

The group must be encouraged to discuss its work with the supervisor and where possible solicit his or her ideas. When it comes to the management presentation, the supervisor should always be invited to attend.

Q. What if the supervisor is resistant to the idea of having Circles?

In situations where the supervisor neither wishes to participate in the Circle, nor is prepared to allow a Circle to be formed in the work area, it is up to management to make a decision whether one of its appointees should be allowed to continue in a position which obstructs both the wishes of manage­ment and workpeople alike, and the action taken in such circumstances is beyond the scope of this post. It is, however, encouraging to note that such situations are extremely rare.

6          `To identify, analyse and solve problems in their work’ 

The key point about this part of the definition is the fact that the Circles identify their own problems in their own work area. That is not to say that other people may not make suggestions. Indeed, the essence of Quality Circles ultimately should be that the Circles really become managers at their own level.

Q. How do Circles know what is important?

People can only manage if they are fed with information, and the more information which is fed to the Quality Circle from management, management specialists, people in other departments and so on, the more effective the group will be. `Self-control’ is the foundation of Circle activities.

Q. Do Quality Circles degenerate into becoming bitching sessions?

When people arrive for their very first Circle meeting, they may have been attracted by the possibility of using the Circle as a means of highlighting the faults of others. For example, they may complain about the quality of the products they receive from the previous section; poor quality materials, tools and equipment; inadequate service from specialist departments, and so on. However, when they join the group they realise that this is not at all the purpose of the Circle. They are told that `whilst we can complain about those other people, we cannot do anything about them’.

Q. What do Quality Circles like the most?

In almost all cases, there are plenty of problems in any work area, which can be under their control, and where the Circles can apply their own knowledge and experience to get results. It is this aspect of Quality Circle activities which gives the members the greatest satisfaction. Because they are not meeting to criticise the work of others, they find that they can make real progress with their projects. When asked what they like most about Quality Circles, one of the most frequent answers comes back: we find we can get things done’.These problems have been around for years, and now we are making progress.’

7.   `Presenting solutions to management’ 

This is the focal point or highlight of all Circle activities around the World: the presentation to management. Sometimes after weeks of collecting data, trying out new ideas, having discussions with all kinds of people, when the members of the Circle have installed their proposal, or are convinced of the value of their improvement, it is necessary to present their ideas to their manager.

Q. What if management doesn’t accept a Quality Circle’s proposal?

The group is usually proud of its achievement and the teamwork involved. It will probably have worked very hard, may have spent lunchtimes, evenings or even week-ends working on its ideas if its members have been enthusiastic enough, and frequently they are. Consequently, the presentations of their ideas to management are the culmination of all this activity. It would be unfortunate if they were unable to convince their manager of the benefits of their ideas, simply because they were badly presented or because the members were forced to present their ideas in the form of a report which might not be read. Therefore, training newly formed Circles in presentation tech­niques is extremely important. They may use two or even three meetings to plan and prepare their presentation. It would also be unfortunate, if an unthinking manager, given the enthusiasm and hard work of a Circle, was `too busy to listen’. It would probably mean the end of the Circle. Therefore, management has an obligation to allow the group to make a formal presentation of its proposal, and to make constructive comments afterwards.

Q. Who makes the presentation?

It is important that all members of the Circle participate in the presentation as members of a team. Whilst there is no obligation on management to accept the ideas of a Circle, they must be given serious consideration. If management decides to turn down a proposal, it really owes it to the Circle to give a good explanation for its rejection. Fortunately, Circle projects are usually so carefully thought through that outright rejection by management is quite rare.

8. `Implementing the solutions themselves’ 

Because Circles are usually concerned with problems in their own work rather than with those over the fence in the next department, they can often implement the solutions themselves. This is particularly true of housekeeping problems, reduction in waste material, energy saving and so forth. They also frequently find better ways of doing their own jobs.

Q. Can you give an example of a Quality Circle project?

A non engineering example. A Quality Circle in the credit control department of a division of a fairly large company formed a Quality Circle. For their first project the members decided to analyse one of their work routines that they found to be particularly tedious. The result was that they reduced the work content by 16 hours per month. In the process of this work they highlighted another problem which, when solved, saved a further 17 hours a month, making a total monthly saving of 33 hours. For their third project, they decided to brainstorm all the possible ways they could make use of the time saved. Someone suggested that they might follow up the invoices with a telephone call. The effect of this idea was to reduce the average credit period by nearly two weeks, thereby making available to that company a considerable sum of money.

Q. Can Quality Circles lead to other concepts for performance improvement?

This concept demonstrates how people can effectively become involved in the success of an organisation through the development of self-control in small group’ type activities. These activities can be organised in several different ways, and can include task force operations, value analysis teams, value engineering, project groups, action centred groups, 5S Housekeeping activities, Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) etc. Each plays a different but important part in participative activities. Trueself-control’ can only be introduced through Quality Circle type activities. The Quality Circle is a specific form of small group activity, and serves a distinctly different purpose from other kinds of group, team or committee activities.

Other relevant content

Quality Circles Rule OK

The case for Quality Circles

Quality Circles Society in the UK do we need one?

Quality Circles in Education

_This Blog was written by David Hutchins who was responsible for the creation of the Chartered Quality Institute (CQI) qualifications and David heads the David Hutchins International Quality College. 

Those interested in implementing Quality Circles would be advised to consider studying for the e-learning course Quality Fundamentals, the DHIQC Diploma in Quality Leadership and the Higher Diploma in Quality Leadership all of which can be found at www.qualitycoursesonline.co.uk . In these course, it will be seen that there are many other related approaches to business performance improvement that should be considered and which when implemented can potentially result in large savings and dramatic reductions in lead times.