Quality Circles have been around a long time, originally emanating from Japan during their postwar rebuilding period. Essentially they are where the rubber meets the road in terms of Quality and in particular continual improvement. As Facilities Managers, we rely on our frontline staff who are in the customer’s line of sight. It is these people who deliver the service and who are best positioned to improve it.Quality Circles

Quality Circles were inspired by W Edwards Deming along with the whole Quality movement. If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know that Service Quality is one of the themes that run through many of my posts. What got me thinking about Quality Circles this week was a blog written by Liz Kentish entitled “What I learned this Month… Ask the Person Doing the Job”. In that post, she regales us with the story of how she and her assistant got involved in having to fold 400 handouts for a presentation she was doing. Liz writes;

“When we were folding the sheets of paper, after the first ten, we worked out that there was a quicker way of preparing them. After thirty sheets, we found a quicker way still and by the time we were finishing we had the process down to a fine art.

This got me thinking about the way that the management of companies sometimes comes up with new ideas for the work that they do and then impose what they see as the way to do it. The new process gets under way and in many cases is not as smooth or speedy as they thought it would be.
What they should do is to ask the people who are actually doing the job, because no one else knows better how that work or process can be improved”

This may seem a blinding flash of the obvious, but in reality how often do we consult the people actually doing the task when trying to improve it? This got me thinking about the subject of Quality Circles.

Quality Circles are certainly not a new idea, they have been around since postwar Japan and are the operational sharp end of the whole Quality and continual improvement movement. Initially, Quality Circles focused on the manufacturing industries. However, Quality Circles are just as effective in service related industries, if we did but use them!

Like many well-established methodologies and processes as well as tools from the past, Quality Circles have seemingly fallen into disfavour, with the onset of shiny new objects and tech such as IOT, sensors, apps etc. However, if Quality Circles are good enough for the likes of Toyota and their seemingly un-copyable meteoric ascent to the quality throne, then it should be good enough for us in facilities management. The secret lays in that the process and operational improvement is based on the knowledge of the production line staff.

The basis of any ISO-accreditation is the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) process of continual improvement. I for one fully subscribe to the process. But like many processes, PCDA does not often translate into reality. The Management Review process is too remote and removed from the shop-floor. It tends to be conducted in boardrooms far from where the service is delivered and by definition and practice this tends to involve management rather than the workers.

In my facilities management experience, I have rarely seen staff at the coalface, empowered enough to provide Quality feedback to their supervisors and managers that have ended up in improving the process of delivering services to the end user.

If we use the example that Liz Kentish mentioned as an illustration of a Quality Circle process, then we can expect to see real improvement in real time can be achieved, by allowing the frontline staff to change and adapt the process as they go.

Some may argue that the reason why the process was able to be improved three times whilst the production line was still operational was because a member of “management” was involved in the actual task. Whilst this may be true, it serves to illustrate one of the most critical aspects that we will come on to discuss. Management empowerment of production staff to change the process is central to the effectiveness of Quality Circles.

The innovator’s mantra is “if you’re going to fail, fail fast” in this way experimentation is quick, less expensive and less risky. The beauty of the Quality Circle process is that providing there is a high degree of empowerment, change can happen fast.  With the added benefit of immediate feedback, to adapt, change or stop altogether, Quality Circles can become a very valuable instrument in your innovation toolbox and is, therefore, worthy of a reprise.

Quality Circles is a complex subject and I could not hope to do justice to it in a single blog post.  I will cover the subject in two posts;

  1. This post – Introduction and overview of Quality Circles 
  2. Next weeks post – Setup and implementation of Quality Circles 

Introduction

A variety of benefits has been attributed to Quality Circles, including higher Quality, improved productivity, a greater upward flow of information, broader improved worker attitudes, job enrichment, and greater teamwork. Quality circles also are incredibly useful in reinforcing staff engagement, morale and motivation by encouraging a strong sense of teamwork and participation in the success of an organisation.

In a recent interview with FM TV, I spoke about facilities management providing leadership opportunities to our younger members of staff. Quality Circles are also incredibly useful in developing internal leadership from sources and talent that might otherwise have been overlooked. I have seen leaders grow from receptionists, cleaners and security guards through this process.

Unfortunately, Quality Circles have received a degree of criticism. From an output perspective, there have been examples of unrealistic expectations for fast results. From a human resources perspective, a lack of management commitment as well as resistance to implementation of both the Circle itself as well as its recommendations by middle management is also to blame. Resentment by non-participants has also contributed to failures in the use of Quality Circles. It is true that there are a number of potential minefields in the implementation of Quality Circles not least inadequate training, lack of clear objectives and failures to get solutions implemented. With a commitment to implementation from leadership, these can be eliminated.

Management and supervisory staff regularly record being taken aback by how fast shopfloor personnel of all backgrounds come together and gel by grasping the methodology, acquiring the skills, capabilities, confidence and creativity to resolve significant work-related problems that had their predecessors and leaders stumped for many years previously.

The Quality Circle methodology is extremely effective in delivering quantum leaps in service quality, operating efficiency and process effectiveness along with concomitant levels of savings. In the process of achieving these commercial outcomes, staff and management are developed and high levels of morale, engagement and participation can be expected.

Quality Circles require participative methods in the workplace in order to improve the work environment, productivity and Quality for the company. This implies the development of skills, capabilities, confidence and creativity of the people through a cumulative process of education, training, work experience and participation. It also implies the creation of facilitative conditions and environment of work, which can create and sustain their motivation and commitment towards work excellence.

Quality Circles have emerged as a mechanism to develop and utilise the tremendous potential of people for improvement in product Quality and productivity.

Involving frontline staff in problem-solving and empowering them to change their work circumstances, processes and outputs can be very challenging for some work cultures. It can also be potentially threatening for some managers to accept that the workers perhaps know better and solve their own problems. Significant resistance from management to recommendations from Quality Circles has been one of the major downfalls in previous years. With today’s less autocratic, more enlightened and flattened organisational structures together with the urgent need for innovation and improvement, one hopes that this constraint at least is on the endangered list if not already extinct.

Definition

Membership of a Quality Circle is voluntary, but one should not be fooled into thinking that this is not a significant commitment by those involved. It is essential that all Circle members commit to regular meetings preferably at a fixed time and place every week. To ensure that this happens, management needs to facilitate the process with resources and time away from operations.

Generally, 6 –12 volunteers from the same work area make up a Circle. Those members select a name for their Circle in the first meeting and elect a leader to conduct the meetings. It is important to understand that management should not run this process. They must empower the circle members to elect their leader without interference. In this way, management sends the right message that the circle is empowered to conduct itself and that it has an open mandate as well as lines of communication to the Leadership.

The purpose of the Quality Circle is to identify improvements in their respective work areas including productivity, Quality, cost saving, resource utilisation and innovation by the development of the team in an innovative participative problem-solving process.

The Circle will need to be trained in problem-solving, statistical Quality control, group processes and analysis techniques in order to play their role effectively. They will have to use proven techniques for analysing and solving work related problems coming in the way of achieving and sustaining excellence.

Quality Circles are a participative philosophy woven around Quality Control and problem-solving at the grass root level. It exemplifies the policy of people building, respect for human beings and creates a participative management culture. It is a way of capturing the creative and innovative power that lies within the workforce which leads to the mutual upliftment of employees as well as the organisation.

Philosophy

“ITS A JOURNEY – NOT A DESTINATION”

Quality Circles is a people building philosophy, providing self-motivation and desire to improve the environment without any compulsion, coercion or monetary benefits. It represents a philosophy that understands that no one knows more about their own job than the person doing it. They have first-hand experience and a wealth of knowledge to contribute.

Quality Circles is a methodology that stimulates people especially those at the grass root level with a clearly defined mechanism and methodology for translating this philosophy into practice. This together with the required structure will make it a way of life while at the same time meaningfully enriching jobs and lives.

Quality Circles will succeed and generate significant improvement, savings and commercial benefit for the organisation but only where people are respected and are involved in decisions, concerning their work life, and in environments where peoples’ capabilities are looked upon as assets to solve work-area problems.

The Quality Circle philosophy calls for a progressive attitude on the part of the management and their willingness to make adjustments, if necessary, in their style and culture. If workers are prepared to contribute their ideas, the management must be willing to create a congenial environment to encourage them to do so.

By encouraging employees to exercise judgment, make improvements and solve work related problems, their sense of responsibility increases and they become genuinely involved in a meaningful manner in their work.

Next Week

In next week’s post, I will cover all aspects of how to set up and run a Quality Circle together with some recommendations on the processes and tools to be used as well as some useful tips and tricks.

Question: Have you used Quality Circles in your operations? Or how do you ensure feedback from the shop-floor?