Quality CirclesLast week I posted about the concept of Quality Circles in Quality Circles-Improving the Improvement System. In that post, I covered an introduction to Quality Circles together with the definition and philosophy surrounding its practice. In summary, the concept is a simple to administer Quality program that is conducted in the workplace by front-line employees. It is based upon the recognition of the worker as a human being, as someone who willingly provides her wisdom, intelligence, experience, attitude and feelings to the company for the purposes of improving the service she provides. It is based upon human resource management and is considered as one of the key factors in the improvement of Service Quality & productivity.
In short, the Quality Circle concept has three major attributes;
  1. Quality Circle is a problem-solving technique.
  2. Quality Circle is a form of participative management.
  3. Quality Circle is a human resource development technique.
What I want to cover in this post is the implementation and operationalisation of Quality Circles.


The objectives of Quality Circles are many-fold and it’s important to understand what they are trying to achieve beyond just continual improvement in the quality of work output. This is reflected in some of the softer skills that are required in establishing and running Quality Circles.
  1. Attitude

The objectives of Quality Circles are Multi-faceted but predominantly point towards a change in attitude from “I don’t care” to “I do care” through the continuous improvement in Quality of work life through the humanization of work.
  1. Self-Development

Bringing out the ‘hidden potential’ of people where people get to learn skills not normally associated with their day-to-day operational activities such as leadership, critical thinking, analysis and problem-solving. In addition, the softer side of self-development is team members learning from one another by discussion and where the workplace becomes a place where both hands and minds are used to improve the service.
  1. Team Spirit

Individuals who often are working alone are melded into teams, with the resultant development of a team spirit which manifests itself in a “we did it, as opposed to I could not do it” attitude. Quality Circle teams record elimination of internal operational ‘silos’ and the elimination of interdepartmental conflicts.
It is not always an easy process and teams are challenged and stretched beyond their comfort zone promoting energy and excitement. Team spirit is enhanced as members feel that they are meaningfully contributing to the bigger picture.
  1. Organisational Culture

Wider organisation benefits that are gained from an improved organisational culture and a positive working environment, in particular. The steering committee report back process engages people at all levels of the organisation in a participative process. Visible management support encourages the staff to not only perform better within the Quality Circle but also in their day-to-day roles, fostering greater cooperation across all levels of the organisation. 
  1. Quality Improvement

In many ways, all of the objectives mentioned above are secondary to the overall objective of Quality Circles. Quality Circles are designed to achieve more effective and efficient work processes, making work easier, smarter and faster. Quality Circles are shown to be extremely effective in bringing quantum leaps in service quality, operating efficiency and process effectiveness along with concomitant levels of savings.
Quality improvement initiatives are often too far removed from where Quality is actually delivered, which is at the coalface of operations. Quality circles allow shopfloor staff to acquire the skills capability, confidence and creativity to resolve significant work-related problems that had their predecessors and leaders stumped for many years previously.

Quality Circle Structure

A Quality Circle needs to have an appropriate organisational structure to ensure effective and efficient performance. It varies from industry to industry, organisation to organisation. But it is useful to have a basic framework as a model that can be adapted according to your context and circumstance. I have conducted Quality Circles with as little as 4 members and as many as 12.
I have heard excuses for not conducting Quality Circles from facilities managers saying that they are the only person on site. That may be true from their own organisation but service providers, cleaners, security and reception staff are often involved in the delivery of services and very effective Quality Circles can be constructed from members outside your organisation but inside your service delivery sphere of influence.
The structure of a Quality Circle consists of the following elements. All roles and responsibilities must be must be clearly defined and understood
  1. Steering Committee

The Steering Committee is at the top of the Quality Circle structure. It is headed by a senior executive often from outside the immediate operational area under review, to provide additional perspective. Top operational management personnel should also be involved as well as human resources.
The steering committee establishes policy, plans and directs the program and meets usually once in a month. The Steering committee role is to;
  • Provide visible support and recognition
  • Act as a resource
  • Provide overall direction for programme
  • Make implementation decisions
  1. Co-ordinator

He/She may be a Personnel or Administrative officer who co-ordinates and supervises the work of the facilitators and administers the programme.
  1. Facilitator

He/She may be a senior supervisory officer, who coordinates the work of several Quality Circles through the Circle leaders.
  • Facilitate team meetings
  • Coach team and team members
  • Conducts before and after session “sit-rep” meetings with the Circle leader
  1. Circle Members

Generally, 6 –12 volunteers from the same work area make up a Circle. Anyone can be a Circle member but it is important that they are committed to the process and are involved intimately in the area of work under discussion. Without Circle members, the programme cannot exist. They are the lifeblood of Quality Circles. 
They should attend all meetings as far as possible, offer suggestions and ideas, participate actively in group process, take training seriously with a receptive attitude.
Those members select a name for their Circle in the first meeting and it is the members that must elect a leader to conduct the meetings. It is important to understand that management should not run this process that they must empower the circle members to elect their leader without interference. Lastly;
  1. Circle Leader

Leaders may be from lowest level workers or supervisors. A Circle leader organises and conducts Circle activities. It is important to remember that his/her position conveys no other privileges, compensation or benefits over that of the circle members. Team leaders;
  • Plan meetings
  • Give support and guidance
  • Provide a focal point for leadership
  • Liaise with management

Launching Quality Circles

The major prerequisite for initiating Quality Circles in any organisation is the total understanding of, as well as complete conviction and faith in, the participative philosophy, on the part of the top and senior management. In the absence of a commitment from the Chief Executive to support the Quality Circle movement, it would be inadvisable to seriously attempt the starting of Quality Circles.
The launching of Quality Circles involves the following steps;
  1. Expose middle-level executives to the concept.
  2. Explain the concept to the employees and invite them to volunteer as members of Quality Circles.
  3.  Nominate senior officers as facilitators.
  4. Form a steering committee.
  5. Arrange training of coordinators, facilitators in the basics of a Quality Circle approach, implementation, techniques and operation. 
  6. Later the facilitator may provide training to Circle leaders and Circle members.
  7. A Quality Circle meeting should have a fixed time and place for preferably no more than one hour a week
  8. Formally inaugurate the Quality Circle.
  9. Arrange the necessary facilities and resources for the Quality Circle meeting and its operation.


Appropriate training for different sections of employees needs to be undertaken. Without a proper understanding of the real concept of Quality Circles, both the workers and management might look at this philosophy with suspicion. Each group should know beforehand the commitments and implications involved as well as the benefit that can be obtained from Quality Circles.
Such training should comprise of:
  • Brief orientation programme for top management.
  • Programme for middle-level executives.
  • Training of facilitators.
  • Training for Circle leaders and members.

Process of Implementing Quality Circles

The operation of Quality Circles involves a set of 13 sequential steps set out below, but first, it is advisable to set out the overall objectives by establishing the team, the team name and align the goals with company’s strategic priorities and what it is trying to achieve. I would also advise that the team set out a Code of Conduct for all the  group members which may include some or all of the following
  • Be punctual
  • Everyone to contribute (to teach and to learn)
  • To listen
  • Don’t judge
  • Don’t take offence
  • Respect each other’s cultural differences
  • Respect for all ideas
  • All feel free to speak
  • Don’t be critical
  • Take every idea and run with it
  • Honesty
  1. Area of Operation

Agree on the ‘playing field’. i.e what particular area of operations is the focus of the Quality Circle i.e. cleaning, reception, catering etc.
  1. Brainstorming

Conduct a brainstorming exercise to list out all of the issues challenges problems associated with the area of operation. Identify, select the problem to be taken up first. Here are some guidelines to achieving this.
  • Brain-storming -creativity, explore issues, ideas, there should be no ‘sacred cows
  • No criticism of ideas during development stage
  • Record all ideas
  • All members take part
  • Think out of the box (especially in the cause and solution seeking stage)
  1. Problem Selection

Take the suggestions listed in the brainstorming session in no particular order and cluster them into themes. You will often find that on examination the same problem is stated in different ways but do not be tempted to discard anything at this stage.
  • Develop mindmaps/clusters and label them
  • When process dries up discuss clusters
  • Individuals define and share all interpretations of the problems
  • Defines, combine or eliminate clusters
  • List and Label clusters (A – B – C) etc….
  • Individual prioritisation of clusters
  • Share individual prioritisation
  • Team prioritisation of cluster
  • Team discussion and agreement on desired priority set
  1. Prioritise Problems

  • Prioritise Problems
  • Nominal Group Technique,
  • Pareto 20/80 principle
  • Define problem (ensure high probable cause, not effect) 
  • What is the perceived problem?
  • Is there a difference between the “as is” and the required performance?
  • Where is it a problem?
  • When is it a problem?
  • How often does it happen?
  • What are the perceived effects?
  • Establish quality output criteria and indicators
  1. Analyse & Determine Causes

The chosen problem is clarified and analysed by basic problem-solving methods.
Cause & Effect diagrams (Fishbone or Ishikawa Diagram) provide a structured way to help you think through all possible causes of a problem. This helps you to carry out a thorough analysis of a situation. Their major benefit is that they push you to consider all possible causes of the problem, rather than just the ones that are most obvious.
  1. Generate Alternative Solutions

Identify and evaluate causes and generate a number of possible alternative solutions. Seek alternatives, weigh up consequences, pros and cons and analyse alternatives.
  1. The Decision Process

Decision-making is a key and critical point in the process, do not feel pressured to make decisions that may have far-reaching consequences without having weighed up all the possibilities and alternatives. The minute you make a decision you set in motion a new cause, effect, direction and destination. This stage requires logical and creative thinking which should not be rushed.
This stage can often generate significant disagreement and friction within the group. In-depth discussion and evaluation of alternatives, by comparison, will help enable the selection of the most appropriate solution.
  • What exactly has to be decided? (Identify issues)
  • What are the alternatives? (Undertake analysis)
  • What are the pros and cons? (Evaluate options)
  • Which alternative is the best? (Identify choices)
  • What action needs to be taken? (Implement plans)
  • Loop back to original issue (Systems thinking)
Should the circle find themselves in a stalemate situation, consult with management to provide an ‘in-principle go-ahead’ to break the deadlock.
Commitment to a decision once taken is often easier than the decision itself. Once the decision has been made stay committed to your decision, but stay flexible in your approach and stay open to alternate routes.

The list below is useful for highlighting different approaches and emphasising that a single style will not always prove to be the most appropriate.
  • 5 Approaches To Decision Making
    • The leader makes the decision himself based on information available
    • The leader obtains information from subordinates and then decides
    • The leader shares the problem with individuals, obtains information and then decides
    • The leaders shares the problem with the team, obtains information and then decides
    • The leader shares the problem with the team, together they generate and evaluate alternatives and attempt to reach an agreement on the solution.
  • Factors influencing our decision-making

    • Conscious
      • Policies
      • Legal restrictions
      • Motives
      • Skills knowledge and experience
      • Rational thinking
      • Alternatives
      • Rules
    • Unconscious
      • Reflexes
      • Values
      • Intuitive thinking
      • Habits
      • Organisational culture
      • Ethnic culture
  • Possible Reasons for Bad Decisions
    • Tunnel vision; restricting the scope of analysis
    • Personal, even selfish, objectives or ambitions
    • No real framework; and the consequent grasp of the first or easy alternatives
    • Lack of information
    • Deliberately ignoring information
    • Failure to consider or generate alternatives; lack of creativity; insufficient time
    • Inability or reluctance to appreciate consequences of certain actions
    • Failure of a group to reach or agree on a decision; or reaching a decision which no individual really supports, but which nobody fundamentally objects to.
    • Indecisiveness
When the decision is taken remember that you need to prepare a plan of action for converting the solution into reality which includes the considerations “who, what, when, where, why and how” of solving problems.
  1. Test possible Solution

Test the idea or solution using prototypes, mockups or trial runs where possible to establish initial operating challenges and benefits. Prototyping will provide useful data for a proof of concept when presenting to management. In addition, confer with user groups and Customers but always remain open to new information and or possibilities. Be particularly vigilant that you avoid groupthink and confirmation bias regarding the decisions taken.
  1. Management Presentation

This phase calls for the presentation of the solution and the test results (where available) to the steering committee for approval. This stage can be particularly daunting for those members of the circle that are not used to presenting, motivating and debating particularly with senior levels of management. Most of all be confident and do not be discouraged. If you have gone through the process above you should have faith in your proposed solution. Thorough preparation for the presentation with an agenda will allow you to proceed through your decision-making process in a sequence that will show that you have gone through the process an intelligent and mature manner.

A suggested structure may look something like;
  • Select a suitable venue, time and date (sometimes it is advantageous to do this on site so that management can really appreciate the problem at hand)
  • Rehearse the presentation more than once (remember amateurs practice until they get it right, professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong)
  • Do a few dry runs before final presentation
  • Select a presentation leader (not necessarily the circle leader)
  • Organise your material (handouts – power point etc)
  • List and discuss possible questions and your answers
  • Design the sequence, starting with company’s strategic imperatives
  • Monitor the time (20 mins, plus 10mins for questions)
  • Take management through the whole team problem-solving process
  • Emphasise recommendations, accomplishments, test results and progress
  • Make presentation,
Do not be disheartened if management seems less than receptive, remain positive but I understand that you may have to go away and do some more work and thinking around aspects of the solution.
  1. Implement Proposed Solution

Where management have evaluated your proposed solution and have given the go-ahead to implement. Review the final action plan and implement. Remember to set up any before versus after data gathering, so that analyses and reporting can show improvement metrics.
  1. Evaluate Results And Confirm Effects

Following implementation and confirmation of data. Evaluate and report back to management the effects of the solution both good and bad. Be sure to investigate if other processes have been negatively affected by the implemented solution. Where the data shows that the solution has not adequately solved the problem, report this back to management and immediately revert back to the Quality Circle process to re-analyse the original problem and suggested a solution.
  1. Standardise and Prevent Recurrence

In the event that the solution is successful, document the process, and submit for configuration. Remember to communicate to management and to the company as a whole your achievements so that these can be implemented elsewhere where appropriate.
  1. Review Remaining Problems:

Buoyed by your success and with root cause or number one priority disposed of go back to the original list of issues. This may well have changed and may require; re-brainstorming, re-analysis and re-prioritization of problems. If not, start on the 2nd problem.

Methodologies Used By the Team:


  • Tables
  • Bar Charts
  • Histograms
  • Circle graphs
  • Line graphs
  • Scattergrams
  • Control Charts

Benefits and Limitations of Quality Circles

It took more than two decades for the quality control concept to get acceptance in South Africa, after its introduction in Japan. This may be due to the differences in the industrial context in the two countries. Japan needed it for its survival in a competitive market. South Africa had a reasonably protected, seller’s market, with consequent lethargy towards efforts to improve quality and productivity. However, with the policy of liberalisation of economy and privatisation of infrastructure development, contexts changed. The concept now needs to be looked upon as a necessity.


  • How do you keep staff motivated & raise people’s commitment to organisational effectiveness
  • Improve long-term sustainable competitiveness
  • To improve the quality of products and services as well as productivity.
  • Give people insight into how a business operates
  • Developing a culture of learning and innovation
  • To identify and solve work-related problems
  • Improved Customer satisfaction
  • It encourages employee participation as well as promotes teamwork.
  • Satisfies the human needs of recognition, achievement and self-development.
  • Improves communication within the organisation,
  • Tapping the creative intelligence of people working in the organisation and making full use of human resources.
  • Helps build a content, bright, and meaningful workplace worthwhile to work
  • To improve employees loyalty
  • Heightened quality awareness reveals faults in the system that might go un-noticed.
  • Increases the value of your brand, and securing your customers’ confidence.


  • Inadequate training
  • Uncertianty of the purpose of Quality Circles
  • Not truly voluntary
  • Lack of management interest and implementation
  • Quality circles are not really empowered to make decisions

Summary of Quality Circles

  • Meet for 1 hour each week during working hours.
  • Choose a project/problem and spend anything from a month to six months analysing and solving it.
  • The whole process of problem-solving follows strict procedures and stages.
  • Problems are identified, and then one is selected by the team voting for it.
  • After this, the cause is thoroughly investigated, and the facts are verified by data gathering and double checking.
  • On occasions, the actual cause which had been assumed was not the same as that which showed up after the data gathering.
  • Armed with facts and a solution, a presentation is made to management to get approval for implementation of the project.
  • Once this has been granted, the whole process of establishing controls and general monitoring begins so that the solution can be standardised.
  • The whole procedure from the initial cause and effect chart on to the final result is recorded with all the charts, drawings and graphs to the final results which are constantly checked and audited.
  • A regular check is made to see that the improvement is maintained.

Question: What is the biggest constraint to you implementing Quality Circles in your operations?