Why Quality Circles Fail
What is a Quality Circle?
Quality circles are a method of quality management from Japan. The author of the concept is Kaoru Ishikawa in cooperation with the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers – JUSE. The essence is to create small groups of 5-11 members, who within their organizational unit focus on long-term volunteer service of quality improvement.
In the circle, only workers with very good working results and with a high discipline are accepted. Membership in the circle is therefore very prestigious. Circles are promoted differently by management, and suggestions for improvements received are put into practice immediately. The principle is that if some of the proposals are not accepted by management, it should justify the reason to the members of the circles.
Why did Quality Circles fall From Grace?
Quality Circles were adopted with much enthusiasm by many organizations in the 1970s and 1980s but many had been abandoned by the late 1990s. The Economist notes that:
Quality circles fell from grace as they were thought to be failing to live up to their promise. A study in 1988 found that 80% of a sample of large companies in the West that had introduced quality circles in the early 1980s had abandoned them before the end of the decade.
The summary below, taken from Wikipedia, is a pretty accurate and succinct description of the issues Quality Circles faced:
Based on 47 QCs over a three-year period, research showed that management-initiated QCs have fewer members, solve more work-related QC problems, and solve their problems much faster than self-initiated QCS. However, the effect of QC initiation (management- vs. self-initiated) on problem-solving performance disappears after controlling QC size. A high attendance of QC meetings is related to a lower number of projects completed and slow speed of performance in management-initiated QCS. QCs with high upper-management support (high attendance of QC meetings) solve significantly more problems than those without. Active QCs had a lower rate of problem-solving failure, higher attendance rate at QC meetings, and higher net savings of QC projects than inactive QCs. QC membership tends to decrease over the three-year period. Larger QCs have a better chance of survival than smaller QCs. A significant drop in QC membership is a precursor of QC failure. The sudden decline in QC membership represents the final and irreversible stage of the QC’s demise
One of the big problems with Quality overall is that inconvenient messages of failure often get the messengers shot by embarrassed powerful people in sales, operations, and finance. Quality Circles, multidisciplinary by nature, had no one powerful person who was a natural sponsor, so they needed a high degree of top management involvement to ensure they could survive the slings and arrows.