The life & death of Quality Circles (and a more modern way to implement them)

By the time I first heard of a Quality Circle, the idea was already almost 30 years old. It’s “a group of workers who do the same or similar work, who meet regularly to identify, analyze and solve work-related problems.” I was in my twenties at the time, doing research for my first book, and I believed these Circles could make a huge difference.

The method was introduced in the 1960s by Professor Kaoru Ishikawa. By the late 1970s, more than 10 million Japanese workers were in Circles. More recently, China is reported to have formed over 20 million Circles in a a range of industries.

But in the US, at least, “quality circles are almost universally consigned to the dustbin of management techniques.”

Why? What can we do to make a good idea even better?

Out of the Crisis

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer of the quality management movement, was one of my early heroes when it came to work. His management philosophy wasn’t just for managers, but for everyone. Remarkably, his 14 principles put people at the center of quality and statistical process control.

“8. Drive out fear. 
12. Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship.
13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.
14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.”

When Out of the Crisis was published, Deming was already in his 80s. He referenced Quality Control Circles (or QC-Circles) several times. Though he was familiar with their success in Japan, he had also seen failed implementations in the US, and he was not optimistic about their success there.

“The idea has appeal. The production worker can tell us a lot about what is wrong and how improvements can be made: why not tap into the source of information and help?
[But] a QC-Circle can thrive only if the management will take action on the recommendations of the Circle. Many QC-Circles are, I fear, management’s hope for a lazy way out.”

Do you treat them as human beings? Or not?

Something went wrong. QC Circles were designed to be a way for people to actively take pride in their work by having a voice in making it better. But Circles often became a management tool focused on cutting costs (and jobs), and on finding fault. 

In his book, Deming excerpted a speech from Dr. Akira Ishikawa (who became president of Texas Instruments in Japan) about why Circles worked in Japan but not in the US.

“In the U.S., a QC-Circle is normally organized as a formal staff organization, wheres a QC-Circle in Japan is an informal group of workers. A manager in Japan serves as an advisor or consultant. In the U.S., a manager of production, to get rid of the job, appoints facilitators for Quality of Work Life, Employee Involvement, Employee Participation, QC-Circles, all of which disintegrate. 
The second contrast is the selection of the theme for a meeting and the way in which the meeting is guided. In the U.S., the selection of a theme or project and how to proceed on it are proposed by a manager. In contrast, in Japan, the things are decided by the initiative of the member-workers.
The third feature is the difference in hours for a meeting. A meeting in the U.S. is held within working hours. A meeting in Japan may be held during working hours, during the lunch period, or after working hours.
In the U.S., monetary reward for a suggestion goes to the individual. In Japan, the benefit is distributed to all employees. Recognition of group achievement supersedes monetary benefit to the individual.”

These aren’t just procedural or technical differences. They’re fundamental. The way that Circles are implemented can determine whether or not employees tap into their innate needs for control, competence, and connection. 

“One Japanese plant manager who turned an unproductive U.S. factory into a profitable venture in less than three months told me: ‘It is simple. You treat American workers as human beings with ordinary needs and values. They react like human beings.’
Once the superficial, adversarial relationship between managers and workers is eliminated, they are more likely to pull together during difficult times and to defend their common interest in the firm’s health. Without a cultural revolution in management, quality control circles will not produce the desired effects in America.”

“WOL for Quality”

When Deming observed Quality Circles, it was well before enterprise social networks, before 4 billion people were using the Internet, before modern research on why people do what they do. Today, it’s easier than ever for employees in any environment to make their ideas visible, to tap into what others in the company know, and to connect and collaborate with them. 

One experiment I plan to work on is to apply the basic elements of WOL Circles - a voluntary, self-organized, safe and confidential space using structured guides - to making work better in a wider range of environments. Call it “WOL for Manufacturing” or “WOL for Hospitals” or even “WOL in the Classroom.”

To suit each specific kind of environment, I would adapt the guides to include different ways for Circles to form and interact, different contributions to make, and different technologies for making them. If a company is already spreading WOL Circles, then such an experiment would be a natural extension, a way to include people in non-office environments.

Perhaps, instead of waiting for “the cultural revolution in management” that Deming thought was necessary, we can take action now. Perhaps we finally have the tools and practices we need to create grassroots movements that matter, that can show management what’s possible and inspire them to enable broader institutional changes.

The missing piece in most quality programs

I fell in love with W. Edwards Deming over twenty-five years ago. He was already in his 90s by then, but his philosophy of work and management was only gradually spreading. I felt like I had discovered A Fundamental Truth. But like other Truths, it was inconvenient to people in power, and was ignored or purposefully misinterpreted.

So when I saw a recent article titled “Deming, Finally!” I was curious. When I noticed it was co-authored by Celine Schillinger, I made a point to read it carefully, since I greatly respect her work driving change at the pharmaceutical company, Sanofi.

“Today, everyone in the manufacturing quality world has read, heard, spoken about Deming. His vision for quality and “14 points of management” as well as the “System of Profound Knowledge” in particular are inescapable reference points.
However, Pharma may have got this all wrong for the last 30 years. By focusing on processes, control and exhortations, manufacturers have missed the essence of Deming’s message.
Deming advised us to actually put the Human at the center of quality and to focus on how the system works.”

The missing piece in most quality programs is the human being. Deming understood that and most of the elements of “the Future of Work” decades ago, but he wasn’t really heard.

Deming would have benefited from better communications & behavior change methods, and I think Working Out Loud Circles can help with both - whether it’s work in an office or in manufacturing plants, in hospitals or schools. I’ll offer some specific suggestions in an upcoming post. In the meantime, read Celine’s article if you can, and let me know what you think about the topic. 

How would you make quality and continuous improvement more human?