Quality Circles or Gemba Kaizen? What is in a name?
1979 was a long time ago which is when the conference illustrated took place. Since then, Quality Circles in the West generally have had a long and bumpy history. Where they have been implemented properly, they delivered everything that could have been expected of them. Sadly, such cases were very much in the minority. The main reason? The appalling ignorance on the part of those who claimed to be experts and the gullibility of those who believed them. Fortunately, after all of these years, there are strong indications that the UK is once again beginning to take an interest in Quality Circles or could it be Kaizen?
What is in a name? It comes down entirely to personal preference because the two concepts are identical. What is really more important is to get good and sound advice before doing anything
One indicator of increased popularity is the fact that David Hutchins now long out of print book ‘The Quality Circles Handbook’ is currently changing hands on Amazon at £95.00 per copy!
The confusion over the name derives from the fact that the name Quality Circles was coined by Professor Kaoru Ishikawa who at that time was President of Tokyo University. Tokyo and Kyoto Universities are great rivals as are Oxford and Cambridge in the UK. For this reason, Kyoto University began promoting the same idea conceptually but rather than use the same label as Tokyo, used the term Gemba Kaizen. The term is a good one because ‘Gemba (also spelt Genba) literally means ‘on the spot’ and ‘Kaizen’ literally means ‘Improvement’ hence, ‘on the spot improvement’. Since this is also what quality Circles do, the two terms are interchangeable.
The term Gemba Kaizen was then further promoted by another rivalry, that between Toyota and Nissan. Nissan has a history of attempting to avoid the use of any term for management concepts known to have been popularized by Toyota. For example, the term ‘Just in Time’ is linked to Toyota. Therefore, if you ask a Nissan executive ‘do you use Just in Time’, the unwary might be surprised at the readiness of the negative answer. ‘No we do not’. What do you do in its place? ‘We have a concept called ‘stockless production’.
In Japan this presents no problem at all because everyone is familiar with the situation but to foreigners not familiar with the language it is very confusing.
Unfortunately, in the mid 1980s, this confusion was cleverly exploited by a sharp Japanese professor who saw an opportunity in Western ignorance. At that time, many Western companies had for a variety of reasons, made a serious mess of Quality Circles. Even though many companies such as Brintons Carpets, Wedgwood, Perkins Diesels, and Michelin Tyres etc. were proving the immense value of properly designed Quality Circle activities, the media became overwhelmed with reports of the failures. Consequently, they were reluctant to start again using the same label but instead chose to adopt the term Gemba Kaizen (frequently the ‘gemba’ was dropped) to give the impression that this was something different.
Provided that this fact is known, the name that is used is irrelevant. What is more important is the principles behind it. If these are understood and applied then Quality Circles, Gemba Kaizen or any other name used for self directing work teams will suffice. It just depends on what turns you on!