A quality circle is a device or tool used in businesses to improve productivity and job performance at work. Quality circles were first developed in post-war Japan as a means to boost the recovery of industry. However, they have also been used in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. Quality circles in the 21st century are often included in broader total quality management strategies.
Usually quality circles within an organization are formed of groups of between three and 12 members which are assigned issues close to their job. Such teams should identify problems and discover long-term solutions, and are vested extensive authority. As employees are charged with problem-solving and overall improvement of the working process, quality circles represent bottom-up innovations in productivity management. Their effectiveness depends on the cooperation of managers, as it is up to them to provide for the implementation of solutions found by employees.
The idea of quality circles was born in Japan when the local scientists' and engineers' union was trying to fill in the gap between job design and actual work production. Japanese workers had shared work principles based on joint efforts and cooperation for centuries. Each member of the Japanese society has the duty to contribute to the progress and improvement of the community, rather than to compete with his or her colleagues. Employees are valued for their competences and skills and team success is highly appreciated by companies. Japanese companies aim at long-term success, therefore quality circles are constantly seeking improvement of the work process that would eventually help make better products. Quality circles gained great popularity throughout Japan and by the 1980s, five in six employees participated in such groups. Such innovation helped to make Japan's global reputation as manufacturers of a wide range of dependable goods, due to the high quality standards set by the Japanese industries.
The Japanese example served as evidence for the effectiveness of quality circles and soon various Asian and Western organizations tried to apply them. Studies into the implementation of quality circles outside Japan have shown less remarkable results, as managers were seeking short-term profits or implemented quality circle strategies only for a limited period. Although results vary between cases, researchers into quality circles have established that their effectiveness largely depends on the commitment and participation of members, who in the best case should be volunteers. Such involvement often depends on the cooperation of managers and their attitudes toward the efforts of employees. Besides, quality circle members should pass a necessary problem-solving training, while executive higher-ups should be able to implement solutions.
In the United States, quality circles have been integrated into total quality management systems, where they are usually acting as independent task groups. The focus of quality circles was shifted to employee training and creating stimulus for workers to take part in decision-making. At the end of the 20th century quality circles were also adopted in a number of U.S. federal agencies.
Studies have demonstrated that the concept of quality circles is differently understood and implemented both in the private and public sectors. However, there are certain common characteristics that quality circles within organizations share. Their structure resembles a traditional organizational pyramid with a steering or executive committee at the top. Quality circles outline the main quality improving efforts, coordinating and supervising them. A quality circle administrator takes care of the coordination between groups and between circles and the executive committee. A quality circle facilitator, on the other hand, assists group members in the application of specific tools and techniques and manages the problem-solving process.
The minimum necessary requirements for effective quality circles include:
members should join groups voluntarily;
members should agree and comply with general rules and norms of quality circles;
group members should accept and assist the quality circle leader;
members should cover training on the quality circle process, including problem solving and group dynamics;
members should know how to use quality circle tools and techniques in order to encounter and fix quality problems.
The ultimate goal of quality circles is to persistently increase the quality of offered products and services in order to best satisfy the customers' needs and expectations.