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Quality control circles: Colombia's experience.


Quality control circles can play an important role in upgrading the quality of products sold on the international market and thereby strengthening their competitiveness. Various developing countries have begun introducing this approach to quality improvement, with positive effects on their export sales. One of these is Colombia, where this technique has been in operation for over a decade. The methodology adopted by a number of firms in Colombia to introduce and develop quality control circles illustrates the steps involved and the requirements for effectively implementing such programmes.

How the idea developed

Ever since the first quality control circle (QCC) was set up in the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers in 1962, the establishment of such circles has been spreading throughout the world. The idea underlying QCCs and their operation was unknown in Colombia before the mid-1970s, when the Colombian Quality Control Association was established. The Association began studying quality control circles and undertook study tours to other Latin American countries that had already launched such programmes, including Brazil and Mexico, as well as to the United States and Japan. In addition, Japanese lecturers were invited to Colombia to describe the experience in their country of using these circles. This exploratory process in Colombia lasted five years.

At the beginning of the 1980s several Colombian enterprises, in both the industrial and service sectors, decided to introduce formal QCC programmes in their organizations. These firms had various rationales for developing such schemes. For some, QCCs offered a means to improve the quality of their products and services. For others, quality control circles were seen as a method to increase productivity. For yet others, the technique was a way to apply participative management principles. These innovating companies included an export-oriented manufacturer of sports shoes; a large firm that produced printed material and also marketed office equipment such as computers and furniture; a commercial bank with a branch in Panama; a company producing vegetable fibre packaging and polystyrene; and a large foreign firm making synthetic fibres.

Objectives of the programme

An analysis of Colombia's experience shows that enterprises that introduced QCC programmes have emphasized one of the following aspects: product quality and productivity, total quality or participative management. As a result, the name of the programme in a particular firm has tended to reflect the firm's specific objectives. If the goal is to improve the quality of products (either goods or services), the name given to the scheme is usually QCCs, productivity circles or problem-solving groups. If the emphasis is on total quality development throughout the enterprise, the usual name is a QCC programme. If the scheme's purpose is participative management, it is likely that the programme is reffered to as a participation circle.

The nature of quality control circles varies depending on the firm's purpose in establishing them. In the case of QCCs that are responsible for controlling and improving the quality of the firm's products (goods or services) and thereby increasing productivity, the circle is usually a small group of employees meeting periodically at their own initiative (generally, a one-hour meeting once a week) to identify, analyze and solve problems concerning the quality of the products made in the company or in their section of the company. The objectives are one or more of the following: control and improve product quality; achieve higher productivity levels; reduce operating costs; and produce fewer defective goods. The members of the QCCs are more familiar than anyone else in producing the product and are therefore in a good position to resolve quality problems. In this situation the QCCs are expected to produce tangible and quantifiable results.

Under the total quality approach, quality control circles generally take the form of a small group of persons working together continuously as a team to upgrade quality in order to satisfy the requirements and expectations of customers (both internal and external). Management may seek to incorporate these circles into the enterprise's overall quality-control process, as a means to improve the skills of staff at all levels (top management, middle management and the workforce) and thus upgrade quality in the broadest sense in the company.

A participative circle is usually a small group of persons working in a specific part of a company who meet from time to time to analyze difficulties encountered in the work place and propose solutions to them. The objectives of such circles may include: application of participative management principles, development of a work climate that provides challenges and motivation, integration of staff in the firm, promotion of a team spirit and enhancement of the status of the individual. The results sought through the establishment of quality control circles are above all therefore usually of an intangible nature.

Stages in developing a scheme

QCC programmes are usually implemented in a series of stages that form part of a long-term process. Each includes activities that have to be completed and raises critical problems that have to be resolved before the next can be started.

The five stages usually included in a QCC programme are initiation, pilot plan, expansion, growth and maturity, which are described below.

Initiation: During this stage enterprises concentrate on collecting background information on QCC programmes, visit other firms that have already launched such schemes and organize courses for top management to determine what the programme is inteded to achieve. In this phase the policy underlying the programme has to be defined and a pragmatic but realistic action framework has to be established. Decisions also have to be taken on how the programme will be carried out over the long term. It usually takes companies one year to complete this stage.

Pilot plan: During this second stage the programme is tested on a small scale (with one or two pilot circles) to evaluate the policies laid down in the first phase, overcome any initial difficulties in starting the pilot circles and adopt an approach for developing the programme on a broader scale. Activites charactereistic of this stage include selecting the area or areas in which the pilot circles are to operate and organizing training for the future leaders of the QCCs (both the pilot circles and the subsequent circles). It is also necessary to acquire or develop relevant training materials at this point.

During this stage an ad hoc executive coordinating committee should be set up with links to the pilot circles. This structure, which is parallel to the firm's overall organizational structure, offers an effective means of promoting the pilot stage. An ongoing evaluation system should also be designed to identify any obstacles encountered in developing the pilot circles so that appropriate action can be taken to overcome them. This stage comes to an end when each pilot circle submits a draft report to the programme's executive coordinating committee summarizing its activities, any problems faced and recommended solutions.

Colombian enterprises have required an average of one year to complete this stage, although some have taken up to two years.

Expansion: The expansion stage is based on the assumption that the entire workforce is able to participate in the QCC programme. The main activities undertaken during this stage are to:

1. Disseminate information about the programme to all of the staff to promote the programme. Means such as publications, videos and meetings can be used to describe the purpose of the programme, its operation, a summary of the results so far achieved within the organization and examples of the experience of other firms.

2. Recruit and train persons responsible for carrying out the programme - the circle leaders and members. These functions should be undertaken on a voluntary basis. The firm should implement the expansion stage using its own staff - it should not have to seek the assistance of external consultants. The knowledge and experience acquired during the previous stages, together with in-house teaching materials, should be sufficient to provide adequate training for circle leaders and members.

The experience of Colombian firms illustrates some of the key considerations during this stage:

a. The trade union should be fully informed about the programme. This is important because it must be made clear that the programme is not intended to replace any trade union activity. For this reason QCCs do not deal with the questions of wages or promotions, for example.

b. The entire company and in particular its middle management should fully support the programme. A frequent error is to regard the QCC scheme as the exclusive domain of a particular department in the firm or a specific group of persons in the company. Staff should understand that the development of circles during the expansion stage is in the interest of all.

c. Management style should be adapted to the concept of worker participation underlying the idea of quality circles. Experience shows that the programme can be most successfully expanded if company managers encourage constructive criticism by their subordinates and seek their advice.

d. Responsibility has to be delegated for developing circles in various areas of the firm.

The expansion stage usually lasts for a minimum of two years in a medium-size firm and up to five years in a larger one. It is the stage that presents the greatest difficulties and the one that demands a considerable amount of patience and determination.

Growth: The main feature of the growth stage is the continuing activity of dozens or even hundreds of circles in the firm that, during the course of a year, may often submit proposals for solving quality problems and for improving work methods. Management should therefore devote adequate time and effort to examining such proposals, allocating the necessary resources so that the QCCs may carry out the suggested improvements.

The circle's work as a group and its methods of solving problems should continuously be improved during this stage. This can be achieved through:

1. The support of middle management. The work done by the circles implies changes in processes. It is therefore important that middle-level supervisors and technicians understand that the circles are not infringing upon their authority or blaming them for problems. The approach that has yielded the best results in Colombia has been to involve these managers in the execution of the programme, drawing to their attention its underlying principles and making it clear that the programme will enhance the status of all staff.

2. Rapid follow-up. Management reaction time is crucial in view of the innumerable proposals submitted by the circles. Company officials should reply rapidly to each proposal. Failure to do so may undermine the confidence of the circle and lower its motivation. In Colombia it has been found that a good approach is to inform the circle immediately whether its proposal has been approved or not. If it has not been, management should explain why, and if it has been, management should set a time limit for implementing it.

3. Adequate financing. Sufficient funds should be available to carry out the proposed solutions. It has been demonstrated in many countries that the benefits obtained from quality control circles exceed the costs. Lack of necessary financial resources, however, often presents a serious problem. During this stage funds should exist to implement the proposals submitted by the circles. If this is not the case, the programme itself may be jeopardized. Some Colombian enterprises have experienced difficulties of this kind.

This stage requires several years of work before the "maturity" stage, which is the last phase, can be embarked upon.

Maturity: The final stage in implementing a QCC programme is that of maturity. In this stage the firm should not only undertake the QCC programme at the base but also backstop it at other organizational levels. The vital tasks at this point are to improve the existing training for the programme and ensure the acceptance of the programme. Thought must be given to providing incentives and rewards for the successful work of the circles. (Most companies do not, however, give economic benefits to their circles, although they do acknowledge in various ways the contributions made.)

An enterprise that has reached this stage has clearly achieved success with the programme. It can at this juncture consider other questions, such as extending the programme in other directions, for instance by having the circles work with the firm's suppliers and distributors.

Results obtained

The results of a QCC programme are both tangible and intangible. The tangible ones include higher productivity: better quality of goods and services: cost reductions: fewer errors, flaws and defects in systems: and better health and safety standards in the work place. All Colombian firms with such programmes can point to very encouraging achievements in these areas.

A sample survey of 30 companies carried out three years ago showed that industrial as well as service firms had made savings of up to several thousand U.S. dollars as a result of the solutions proposed by their quality control circles. In one of the Colombian firms that pioneered the scheme, programme costs during the first two years were about US$15,000 and savings were over $70,000 during the same period (nearly a 5 to 1 ratio).

Intangible benefits include staff development and improvement of the work climate. In this respect, Colombian enterprises have, for instance, made major progress in providing better training for their staff, improving teamwork, achieving better integration of workers in the firm, upgrading the administrative skills of supervisors, and improving communication between management and the workforce.

No studies have been made in Colombia of the direct impact of quality control circles on the country's exports. Such programmes have, however, most certainly been one of the factors behind Colombia's strong export growth in recent years.

Role of associations

Associations responsible for promoting quality, as well as business associations, have played a key role in developing the QCC movement in various countries.

For example, the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers organized the first QCCs in the world and was instrumental in expanding the movement, not only in Japan but also to other countries. In the United States, the American Society for Quality Control, among other activities, studies QCC issues. The Chilean, Mexican and Brazilian Quality Control Associations have coordinated the movement in their respective countries. In Venezuela, the Industrial Standards Commission gathers information on QCC questions.

The Colombian Quality Control Association promoted the programme in Colombia, organized national and international congresses, invited foreign experts to describe their experience, created a national circle project competition, fostered the establishment of a library and videos on the subject, and arranged bilateral meetings with similar bodies in Brazil and the United States. Moreover, the Colombian National Quality Circles Association was established in 1985. Its members are exclusively enterprises that have embarked upon a QCC programme and wish to exchange experiences. The Association organizes an annual congress on quality control circles.

Suggestions for others

Business managers who are considering the possibility of introducing QCCs in their firms should first clearly define the purpose of their programme. The aims should be in line with the nature, philosophy and policy of the company. They should also get a commitment from all those who will be involved in the process. Finally, they should develop a QCC system corresponding to the needs of their own enterprises - in other words, they should avoid copying "models" from other companies or other countries.

Export promotion bodies should provide financial support to organizations that coordinate the work of QCCs in the country to ensure wide dissemination of information on the principles, methodology and experience of local QCCs, as well as on those in other countries. They should encourage the development of the programme in export-oriented enterprises.

In Colombia, the Export Promotion Fund has played a supportive role in the quality control circles movement. It has sponsored QCC promotional activities in the main cities and towns. It has also organized courses and seminars on quality control for top managers, middle managers and professional people of companies producing exclusively for export.
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Title Annotation:export quality control
Author:Marino Navarrete, Hernando
Publication:International Trade Forum
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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