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Using quality circles to develop an action plan required for leading organizations.

Total Quality Management (TQM) as an umbrella for cultural change in business stresses employee participation as a major tenet. Empowering workers to make decisions leading to increased quality and productivity represents a stronghold for the TQM management model. The evolutionary process toward a better organization reveals a shifting of the thinking processes from the higher to the lower ranks of the organization. The typical idea that upper management thinks, middle management controls, and line workers do, is capitulating to a more dynamic arrangement where everybody at their level thinks, controls and acts.

Delegating the thinking processes to lower ranks rest exclusively on the shoulders of upper management. Listening to line workers' ideas and acting upon then, demonstrates management's devotion to participation. However, if management blocks workers' initiatives, employees will perceive that the administration lacks participatory commitment and insists on keeping the old practice of doing "all" thinking from the top.

Assuming upper management commitment to down-spread the participatory processes and readiness to listen and act upon recommendations, the empowerment process demands a well-orchestrated effort. A good idea, to succeed, needs an appropriated vehicle for implementation. This article aims to share the strategy of the author in implementing an employee participation process, generically known as quality circles.

Simply put, a quality circle is a small group of people doing similar work, meeting regularly to identify, analyze and solve work related problems and increase quality and productivity. Each circle usually has five to 12 employees from a natural working section in which everyone's work relates in some way. Strictly voluntary membership and goals that eventually accommodate the interest of employees and organization bond a successful process.

A brief historical check marks the beginning of quality circles in Japan around 1962 under the name of "Quality Control Circles." However, the process started as early as 1950 through an intensive management education on quality subjects. The pioneer educator was W. Edwards Deming, an American professor of statistics. He was invited by the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) to teach a seminar on how to solve quality problems. The seminar consisted of the application of analytical methods developed by industrial engineers in the United States and already in practice prior to their introduction in Japan.

The Japanese enthusiasm for this seminar came as a need to investigate the source of quality and product deficiencies and to upgrade, by then, Japan's inferior products. Later, in 1954, J.M. Juran, another American professor, added to the quality stream with his seminar "Quality Control Management." Besides the analytical techniques taught by Deming and Juran, the Japanese focused on the human aspect of the organization.

By the early 1960s, it was evident to Japanese management that a tremendous knowledge gap existed between management and line workers. So, the shift was toward involving and teaching the problem-solving techniques to the labor force. Initially, Japanese firms mandated that hourly workers meet with their supervisors to learn the techniques. The groups sat in 'Circles' for about one hour a week to learn and discuss ways to solve quality related problems. Resulting from the extensive training of employees and a continued emphasis on involvement, today in Japan there are more that 170,000 circles registered with JUSE and about 250,000 operating independently. This accounts for more than 3 million workers actively participating.

Because the widespread success of quality circles in Japan, many American companies have developed similar programs. Nevertheless, most attempts in the United States have ended in failure.

So much potential dwells within the American worker's mind that to not use it resembles a turbulent river dying unproductive in the sea. Management has the ability to build a dam to contain and properly channel and use this immense source of thinking power. As in any structure, to implement a stable quality circle process you need to build a solid foundation. Four pillars underpin the process; the are:

* A philosophy of group participation;

* A set of guiding principles to assure process prosperity;

* Intense education on problem-solving and group techniques; and

* A complete infrastructure for implementation and verification.

These interconnected dimensions constitute the formula for a triumphant exercise of the betterment process. Below is an in-depth look at each one:

Quality Circle Philosophy -- A complete observation of human activity cannot disregard a wider context of social relations. Although, the concept of quality circles stemmed from a desire to improve quality, the fundamental end feeds on a strong aspiration to develop and enhance human beings. People compose the primary resources of the organization and a fruitful quality circle practice has to develop specific policies and actions around that attitude. The ultimate aspiration of the process rests in creating a knowledgeable work force proudly participating in the implementation of their ideas and constantly improving the system.

Vanguard attitudes like investment in training, lifetime employment for core employees, broad career path within the company, collective decision-making and promotions from within indicates that the company's leadership positively reacts to its personnel.

Materialistic emphasis in failed quality circle programs, makes it difficult for managers to adopt the "enhancement of human resources" view in place of determining the "cost-benefit ratio" of the quality circle. In short, the philosophy of the process reads that to get productivity, quality improvements, etc. from employees, management has to invest resources in the education of its employees and serenely wait until results pour out of the process.

Intertwined in the philosophy must be a long-term management and employee commitment. Management cannot look at the quality circle process as an activity that will yield an immediate return without an investment. They have to patiently cope with the process and let the operation mature. Only then will the program yield adequate benefits. On the other hand, employees cannot look at the program only as a personal enhancement activity; they must produce indisputable contributions. The crux for a productive labor-management relationship hangs on "balance." This interdependence, backed with the proper amount of enthusiasm, will produce a harmonious and competitive organization.

Guiding Principles -- To translate the philosophy to practical terms, guiding principles must be in place. These precepts will allow management and employees to ease the day-to-day activities and will set the engagement rules for smooth interaction. In my experience these principles bring tremendous awareness and dynamics to the process implementation, avoiding unnecessary delays. Here is a small sample:

A) Listen with an open-mind to what the other party has to say. Avoid prejudgment of circle recommendations or management answers.

B) When discussions get too hot, temporarily suspend them and involve other people as arbitrators. Also, management and labor should clarify their argumentative points, keep emotional involvement out of the issue, and if possible, write down the problem for further analysis.

C) If management rejects a circle recommendation, the circle should be entitled to an explanation of why the suggestion was rejected. A written statement is highly desirable. Do not tolerate a "no" answer without an explanation.

D) After suggestion approval, implementation should be as soon as possible if not immediately. Unnecessary delays will damage the morale of employees and the whole program. Timing is important and time standards should be developed (i.e., time to answer a suggestion, accepted time for implementation, etc.).

E) The quality circle should avoid divagation during the meetings. The meetings are a productive activity, not a mere social gathering.

F) The quality circle should keep management informed of the latest developments. Also, communication with other circles will help by sharing ideas.

G) Management should keep employees informed about problems that exist or have been solved. This will avoid duplication, direct group effort to unsolved problems, and will provide a good framework for management-labor cooperation.

The above regulations should not be construe as a finished product or limitation. On the contrary, consider the list an open and alive summary of working modes that will be changed, deleted or added as the work force learns and understands the process.

Education of Management and Employees -- Training and education play a central role in the enhancement of human resources. Learning the process and incorporating it to the organizational culture as a way to do business becomes the axis of the betterment process. Instruction should include knowledge that directly applies to the improvement of the organization and is promptly usable. More capable individuals will improve the group's probability to provide objective recommendations and implementation paths. Before any special training specific to the company's product or service occurs, teaching basic group techniques deserves special attention. Mastering these techniques will accelerate the readiness of the group to concentrate on the desired subject and obtain results. In my daily transactions, I have gathered a basic "quality circle curriculum" in the following manner:

* Guidelines for Effective quality circle meetings;

* Problem Solving Steps;

* Elements of Breakthrough Thinking;

* Decision Making;

* Pareto Analysis;

* Cause and Effect Diagram;

* Brainstorming;

* Nominal Group Technique; and

* Management Presentation.

Addressing these procedures will take several short sessions yielding an excellent return from the effort. After schooling the basics, teaching more sophisticated 'quality' tools will set up the battlefield for production/services improvements. If pertinent, exposure to elements of statistics, quality control charts, sampling plans or special techniques, will definitively expand the horizons of employees. Concentration on my dictum "now that you know it, use it!" has given me considerable tactical gains. Once the circle's members conquer these techniques they will posses the right weaponry to deal with "real" problems specific to the business.

Methodology for Implementation and Evaluation -- The formal organizational structure equates to the fourth dimension of the process. Transformation does not happen in a vacuum. Management has to provide the infrastructure to keep the quality control process alive and growing. After securing long-term commitment from management and employees, and after the instructional process, the proper structure has to materialize. Despite each organization having a different composition, include the definition of the following four elements in the process design:

The Steering Committee guarantees the top-level management participation and is composed of highest managers from each major section of the company. Union leaders, if applicable, must also chair the committee. Roles of the committee are:

* To provide final decisions when necessary;

* To rank actions and provide resources;

* To support circle activities; and

* To evaluate quality circle program effectiveness.

The Quality Circle Facilitator epitomizes the champion of the process. This authority knows managerial and problemsolving techniques and brings a spirited leadership to the process. The facilitator could be an internal employee or an outside expert. Also the facilitator acts as the main liaison between the quality circles and upper management and among circles. Specific tasks are:

* To teach techniques and organize the process;

* To coordinate circle activities;

* To track and measure accomplishments;

* To attend quality circle meetings and help with recommendations;

* To provide group performance feedback;

* To assist quality circle leader in agenda development;

* To communicate activities to management;

* To spread ideas among different circles; and

* To render scientific support and methodology, etc.

The Q.C. Leader plays the speaker and organizer role for each group and his/her functions are:

* To lead the meetings and use the problem-solving techniques;

* To help with training of members;

* To support the members;

* To cooperate with facilitator;

* To develop meeting agenda; and

* To establish a meeting environment conducive to employee participation, etc.

The Quality Circle Members make up the foundation of the process and their duties are:

* To learn the problem-solving techniques;

* To work with the other members using the problemsolving techniques;

* To attend meetings and participate; and

* To help and contribute to the process, etc.

Although formal in content, the above structure does not have to be rigid. Your organization needs to find a balance unique to your people and culture that will allow for a growing creative and innovative process.

In summary, the established foundation for a healthy quality circle development will help you to obtain the desired results: put your people in the creative-productive mode. Despite the argument that the American society is individualistic rather than group oriented, this action plan leads to a vigorous and constructive process. Management accounts as the single responsible for delegating the thinking process to all levels of the corporation. Hopefully, American management will finally correct the misconception that quality circles only belong to employees when indeed they are an integral part of the management tool-box. Quality circles fulfill the involvement, commitment and productive needs of employees and the role of management in cultivating this activity is paramount. The use of this model will provide the required thinking power to move your organization to a leadership position in your trade.

Hans D. Allender, Ph.D., P.E. is head of the Office of Productivity at the Department of Utilities, Anne Arundel County, Md. He supervises, plans and controls the activities of the office that provides the department with leadership, organizational vision, planning and scientific support to all productivity and quality improvement efforts. Allender is a senior member of IIE and one of the directors of the Baltimore Chapter. He is interested in the constant improvement and effective integration of organizations under the TQM philosophy.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
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Title Annotation:Total Quality Management
Author:Allender, Hans D.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Words:2171
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