Quality circles

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Quality circles are teams of employees who meet to discuss quality problems and find solutions. Their application differs in Japan and US/Europe.

In the quality management system, the basic applications of teamwork occur during the design and implementation of the system, conducting audits, defining policies and objectives for individuals as well as the entire organization and seeking improvement opportunities. In the design of QMS, teams are created for the purpose of describing processes and their efficient implementation. The use of a team approach, instead of individual, in the auditing process, allows for deeper research and better applications, especially when the auditors have qualifications in various fields. If the organization decides to use the hoshin kanri method to define policies, objectives and tasks, it is necessary to set up teams that will develop proposals for individuals. These applications involve the creation of teams for a short, maximum several months, period of time. The quality management system may also include teams that are constantly working, looking for opportunities to improve the organization. They are often organized in the form of quality wheels.


The quality circle is a small group of people who regularly meet and discuss, analyze, try to solve problems related to quality or, in a broader sense, the activities of the organization (KC Brannen, JA Hranac 1983, p. 21). The fields of interest in quality circles are in addition to quality: efficiency, costs, equipment, process control, safety (IB Gregerman 1978, p. 22). For their appointment it is necessary (LR Smeltzer, BL Kedia 1985, p. 30): adjusting the organizational structure and organization of processes to operate autonomous circles, introducing a participatory style of management at all levels, adjusting decision making methods, improving communication, shaping relations between employees and management, increasing trust and willingness to cooperate, increasing the propensity to change, conducting trainings about wheel operation.

Implementation phases

Each stage of program introduction is associated with risks that may cause its failure. In the first phase, the most common problems are: a small number of volunteers and insufficient training in group work and problem solving. It is therefore necessary to provide employees with adequate motivation. Creating a list of problems and solving them is associated with conflicts in the context of determining the validity of problems, as well as the lack of sufficient technical and organizational knowledge necessary to develop proposals.

The role of management is to provide the necessary knowledge or to allow wheel representatives to contact other departments to obtain information. Lack of knowledge may also be revealed in the third phase, in which resistance from the middle management and the employees affected by the change are also an important problem. On the one hand, this resistance is caused by the fear of change, but also by the managers' loss of the initiative to propose changes. Approving the proposal does not normally mean an automatic transfer to implementation, because it is necessary to establish a hierarchy of ideas reported by different circles.

Frequent problems of implementation are problems with financing changes. After one or several rounds of wheel work, the program is extended. New wheels are created, existing ones are reorganized, and additional trainings are organized. This phase is characterized by serious threats due to increased aspirations and expectations of employees' rewards, as well as higher effects and lower management costs of the wheels. In addition, it is more difficult to find significant problems that could translate into visible savings. The effect may be to reduce the interest in the program and gradually extinguish the activity. Maintaining the pace of work requires constant sympathetic interest on the part of the management and emphasizing the results achieved thanks to the program (EE Lawler, SA Mohrman 1989, p. 68-70).


The main benefits of implementing the concept of quality circles in the organization include (R. Wood, F. Hull, K. Azumi 1983, p. 40-45):

  • enriching work,
  • developing the skills of solving problems independently,
  • introduction of an additional motivational tool by self-setting goals and implementing them,
  • increasing employee participation and popularizing teamwork as an effective way of working,
  • improving communication in the organization and increasing the knowledge of the organization,
  • better use of employees' potential,
  • increase in the degree of employee identification with the organization,
  • increasing productivity and increasing the quality of products,
  • savings in the organization's activities.


The quality wheels have been adopted perfectly in Japan, where currently their number is estimated at 2 million, and about 20 million employees participate in them (S. El Kahal 2001, p. 154). In Europe and the United States they operate with moderate success, which is justified by a different culture. Implementation in enterprises applying Western management style fails mainly due to (BG Dale 1985, p. 43 et seq.):

  • management's expectations of significant economic impact in a short time,
  • expectations that the financial benefits will be huge,
  • sense of deprivation of power by the middle management,
  • resistance on the part of trade unions caused by suspicion of using employees to solve management problems and lack of share in profits from savings,
  • low level of employees' satisfaction with work,
  • creating an atmosphere of suspicion and attempts to control the work of autonomous quality circles by the management,
  • lack of help in obtaining information from the management,
  • delaying the response to wheel proposals caused by giving these proposals a low priority,
  • too-wide problems solved by teams,
  • too shallow and short training,
  • putting too ambitious tasks.

The quality circles in Japan differ from European and American ones in that their work takes place outside of working hours or during downtime, and the subject concerns the whole organization. Narrowing the subject to quality problems causes that after solving all the significant problems, the wheels are looking for new forms of activity. In Western enterprises, three possible directions of evolution were noted. The first is to transform into semi-autonomous working groups that have a high degree of independence in organizing work. If the management agrees to extend the activity of the circles to the entire organization, it is possible to convert them into advisory groups or teams implementing special projects. It is also possible to create business or inter-departmental teams, which, in addition to the advisory role, will have decision-making powers (EE Lawler, SA Mohrman 1989, p. 70).

Teamwork in various forms should be an important element of the quality management system model. However, it is necessary to propose such an organization to make it attractive both for employees binding their future with the company, as well as for those who on their path of development often change jobs. Teamwork can not be effectively implemented if it is not appropriately suited to the culture of the organization and will not be linked to an incentive system that uses methods to assess the work of not only individuals, but also teams.

Examples of Quality circles

In Japan, Quality circles have been used to great success in the manufacturing industry since the 1950s. Quality circles are made up of workers from the same department or shift who meet regularly to discuss and analyze quality issues. In the Japanese context, Quality circles are seen as a way for workers to take ownership of their work and to become more involved in improving processes and quality.

In the US and Europe, Quality circles are often used in the same way as in Japan, although they are more often used in the service industry rather than the manufacturing industry. Examples of Quality circles include customer service teams who meet to discuss customer feedback and come up with ways to improve customer satisfaction, or IT teams who review user feedback and develop solutions for better usability. Quality circles are also used in the healthcare industry, where teams of nurses, doctors, and administrators come together to discuss ways to improve patient safety and satisfaction.

Limitations of Quality circles

Quality circles can provide a useful tool for improving product or process quality, but they are not without their limitations. These include:

  • Lack of commitment from senior management - Without the support and commitment from senior management, quality circles will not be taken seriously and will lack the resources necessary to be successful.
  • Time-consuming meetings - Quality circles can take up a great deal of time due to the amount of discussion and debate that takes place during the meetings.
  • Inability to address root causes - Quality circles are focused on the symptoms of problems rather than their root causes, resulting in temporary fixes that may not last.
  • Difficulty in implementing changes - Without the authority to implement changes, quality circles may not be able to make meaningful improvements.
  • Lack of training - Without proper training, members of quality circles may lack the skills necessary to identify and solve problems.

Other approaches related to Quality circles

Quality circles have been an important part of quality improvement initiatives in both Japan and US/Europe, but other approaches have also been used. These include:

  • Kaizen Events: These are short-term, focused improvement activities in which teams of employees work together to identify and eliminate waste in a process.
  • Six Sigma: This is a quality improvement system that uses data to identify and improve processes. It is based on a set of statistical tools and techniques for problem solving.
  • Total Quality Management (TQM): This is an approach to quality improvement that focuses on involving employees at all levels of the organization in quality improvement activities.
  • Lean Manufacturing: This is a production system that emphasizes the elimination of waste and the streamlining of processes.

These approaches to quality improvement have been used in both Japan and US/Europe, but each approach has different strengths and weaknesses that must be considered when choosing the best approach for a particular organization. In summary, quality circles are just one of many approaches to quality improvement that can be used in both Japan and US/Europe.

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