Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Quality Circles: Promise, Problems, and Prospects in Florida

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Quality Circles: Promise, Problems, and Prospects in Florida

Article excerpt

Quality Circles: Promise, Problems, and Prospects in Florida

Over 50 percent of the general public believes that the American people are not as productive as they should be. This view is also shared by those in the labor force as over three-fourths say that they are not working at full potential (Scott, 1980: 26; Yankelovich and Associates, 1983: 6-7). Findings such as these and troubling economic trends have made the search for productivity techniques - those that enhance efficiency and effectiveness in organizations - a national priority.

As a result, many management improvement ideas - job enrichment, participative management, co-determination, quality of work life- -have been tried in business and government. A surprising number of them, in particular quality circles, have survived bad economic times, cutback management, concession bargaining - to say nothing of the dual infamy of being Japanese and a solution to everything (Business Week, 1982; Pascarella, 1984: 126; O'Donnell and O'Donnell, 1984: esp., 49; White and Bednar, 1984-85: 45). As productivity problems in the United States persist, interest in quality circle programs should continue.

Faced with limited resources, increased demands for services, and fiscal uncertainty, state governments have been an important laboratory for productivity experiments (Jarrett, 1985: esp., 386 and Poister et al., 1985: esp., 12). Perhaps the most prominent manifestation of these activities is the unparalleled growth of quality circles - small, voluntary, homogeneous, problem-solving employee groups. The dramatic spread of quality circles (QCs) in and beyond Japan is telling proof of their general appeal and practical utility; they are the premier strategy for mobilizing human talent to enhance competitive performance.(1)

Major programs in government include more than 2,500 QCs in federal agencies, state projects in Missouri, California, and Florida, and numerous circles in selected counties and municipalities around the nation (International Association of Quality Circles, 1984; U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, 1985; Dawson, 1983; Lewis, 1985; Denhardt and Pyle, 1985; Kelly, 1985; Thomas, 1986). In American business, over 7,000 large and small companies use QCs to improve productivity among blue as well as white collar employees (Smeltzer and Kedia, 1985: 30).(2) The quality circle "revolution", in fact, has spawned an entire movement replete with an international association, regular conventions, local chapters, publications, and consultants specialized in program development.(3)

Considering the rapid diffusion of quality circles and their apparent promise for the future, it is important not to draw sweeping, premature, and perhaps erroneous conclusions. In Japan many companies (and most government agencies) do not have QCs, and those firms using them do not always find them to be effective (Cole, 1980: 30). Similarly, in the United States, while there are many self-reported success stories, there are also instances of failure (Business Week, 1982; Smeltzer and Kedia, 1985: 31; Drago, 1985: 13; White and Bednar, 1984-85: 45-46; Meyer and Scott, 1985: 36). Clearly, then, a systematic examination of the American experience with QCs is preferable to uncritical acceptance of claims made by their advocates and critics.

Despite the common tendency to use business as a model to improve government, the public service may be able to lead the effort to develop greater productivity. In a service economy, white collar workers are ripe for quality circles since they have the responsibility and means for influencing productivity (Donovan, 1986; Richards, 1984: 92). Not only does government's labor intensive nature make productivity a serious issue, but also key characteristics of the Japanese management style that support QCs - lifetime employment, seniority systems, limited unions, intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards - parallel those in American public service (Bowman, 1984b). …

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