Hi, I’m David Veech and this is Elevate your performance.

Let’s talk about Quality Circles; also known as Quality Control Circles or QC Circles.

Quality circles are small groups of employees with cross-functional skills who work together on a problem in the workplace to learn how to solve problems.

This is my definition based on my understanding of the INTENT of quality circles programs at Toyota and Honda.

The key outcome for quality circles is not the solution to the problem, but on having people learn, understand, and use the key problem solving process.  They of course learn by doing, so the solution is the gravy to the meat and potatoes of LEARNING.

I heard a story a long time ago about the birth of Quality Circles.  Let me remind you that Deming initiated the quality movement in Japan in the 1950s through his lecturing with the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers.

Sometime in the mid to late 50s, after Deming had taught another group of managers and engineers the basics of Statistical Quality Control, someone is said to have asked him repeatedly about ways to get more employees involved in solving problems.

The story says that Deming made a short, off the cuff remark about pulling a group of employees together after they’ve experienced a problem and have them stand in a circle to discuss and solve their own problems instead of calling someone else.

This informal, off-the-cuff comment sparked another movement in Japan that included a series of local, regional, and national QC-Circle conferences where workers who solved a problem through a QC circle would present their findings to an audience of peers, who would then select certain ones for awards and celebrations.

Joseph Juran, a contemporary of Deming’s, wrote several articles on Quality Circles in the mid-1960s, published in Quality Digest and other similar publications in the United States.  All of these were completely ignored, of course, until the 80’s when everything Japanese was duplicated, or at least we tried to duplicate.

I was in Grad School at Clemson in 1991 researching production systems when I first learned about Quality Circles. I was studying self-directed work teams, but quality circles kept coming up in my research and my discussions with managers.

A lot of companies tried to install Quality Circles programs in the 80s and 90s.  But as we are wont to do here, we usually mandated that every employee be assigned to a Quality Circle, and they would meet once a week and solve problems to save the company money.

This attitude had to come from Juran’s articles that said Japanese companies who participated in all these Quality Circles conferences reported saving about $10 Million annually through the programs.

US companies wanted that $10 million bucks and missed the whole point about people volunteering, once a problem had occurred, and that other people would be recruited to join the circle with the full support of the company.

Needless to say, most efforts in the US failed.

I started studying quality circles at Toyota after I joined the University of Kentucky faculty in 2001.  Toyota maintained about 150 to 170 active quality circles at any given time.  They reported saving about $10 million from these efforts – a surprisingly consistent number.

I discovered similar findings at Honda’s facility in Marysville, Ohio when I served on the board of IdeasAmerica.

I found this so cool that I wrote about creating circles in my book Leadersights.  Here, though, I called them Learning Circles in an effort to get the focus on developing people.

I hope you’ll pick it up, read it and give it a try.  When you do, call me.  I’d love to help make your system more successful.

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Have a great day and I’ll see you next time.