A Quality Circle (QC) is a formal mechanism to identify problems and suggest solutions to work-related issues. The concept was introduced in 1961 by the Union of Japanese Scientist and Engineers led by Dr. Kaoru Ishikawa. It was piloted at the Nippon Wireless and Telegraph and later spread throughout Japan. The concept was also adopted in South Korea, Taiwan, United States and Europe.

A circle, also known as Work Improvement Team, Synergy Team, and Support Team, has seven basic features: voluntary in nature; small in size; homogenous in membership; projects within control; systematic and scientific in approach, continuing in activity and universal in application. Under the leadership of a supervisor, members of QC meet regularly, undergo trainings to identify, analyze, and solve problems in their work, and, if possible, implement the solutions themselves.

QC Problem Solving Processes

A circle can tackle issues related to housekeeping, accident and sickness prevention/safety, cost reduction/waste minimization, product/service quality improvement, improvement of delivery schedule, work simplification/methods improvement, energy conservation, preventive maintenance, customer relations, and team building.

Meanwhile, matters that are beyond the scope of QC are: company rules of employment, collective labor agreements, grievances, budget planning and allocation, and profits and related financial matters.

Shown below are the steps in QC problem solving.

First, the circle lists all possible problems under the chosen theme. Problems are weighed against one another and a priority problem is chosen. Once a priority problem is chosen, they circle brainstorms for possible causes, shows relationship among causes, validates causes, identifies and classifies root causes according to controllability, and prioritizes major root cause. A solution is then formulated to address the root cause. An action plan which fleshes out the details on the implementation of the solution is established and presented to management for approval.  If it gets management approval, the action plan is implemented by the circle members themselves. Effective solutions are then standardized and made a permanent part of daily operations. Manuals are created and disseminated among people concerned and regular evaluation is carried out to ensure that the process is properly maintained.

The circle can then determine the next problem that it wishes to address.

Basic Quality Improvement Tools

A QC uses tools to collect, summarize and analyze data in solving their work issues. These tools generate good visual aids that make statistical and quality control data easier to comprehend for its members.

  1. Check Sheet – A simple format for systematically recording data. It presents a quick overview of process performance and variation and provides data for quantitative analysis.
  2. Histogram – It is a graphic method of displaying large data sets in a form that indicates the central tendency, the spread along the scale of measurement and the relative frequency of occurrence of the various values.
  3. Pareto Diagram – This graphic tool presents sources of problems in order from most to least significant. It is based on the principle of “the vital few and the trivial many” (80-20 rule): that means 80% of the problem is contributed by 20% of the causes.
  4. Cause and Effect Diagram – Also called fishbone or Ishikawa diagram. This schematic diagram shows the systematic relationship between a problem or effect and its causes.
  5. Stratification – Also known as flow chart or run chart. Stratification is a technique that separates data gathered from a variety of sources so that patterns can be observed.
  6. Scatter Diagrams – They are used to study and identify the possible relationship between the changes observed in two different sets of variables
  7. Control Charts – A statistical tool used to distinguish between process variation resulting from common causes and variation resulting from special causes.

Benefits and Limitations of a Quality Circle

Aside from improving the performance of the organization, the bottom-up approach of QC boosts the morale and the motivation of employees. QC eliminates inter-team conflicts and fosters team spirit. It also contributes to personal development as it helps to learn new skills and brings out the potentials of the employees.

However, the success of QCs is heavily dependent on the support that members receive from the management. The management must be ready to arrange for resources and trainings of circle leaders and members to ensure that they are fully equipped to tackle issues. Another limitation is that QCs simply do not have power to change the company structure and implemented procedures. The management still has the final say on whether or not to implement action plans formulated by QCs. Without adequate support from the management, QCs are essentially useless.

QCs should also start not in isolation but part of a wider program of continuous improvement of the entire company. QCs should interact with other groups concerned with other concepts and group activities to produce an integrated program. It should also veer away from fault-finding and blame games and instead, focus on promoting harmony and high performance in the workspace.

While more innovative management techniques are emerging, QCs remain relevant particularly in soliciting ideas and suggestions from the employees. If implemented properly, a quality circle has the potential to make an important contribution to organizational performance.