It's always puzzled me that quality circles, still so popular in many parts of the world, have had such little
impact in the United States. During the late 1970s, this country's interest in quality circles peaked and then abruptly crashed. It's now hard to find widespread use of quality circles in any
U.S. company or region.
Years ago, Joseph M. Juran postulated that many companies fail to build necessary infrastructures first. This failure was blamed, in part, on
insecurity. Quality circles that started at companies' lowest levels were often seen, even by first-level supervisors, as threats to authority. Although the circles created excellent solutions to
real problems, little support was given to implement these solutions. Management commonly created barriers rather than active support structures.
Juran also noted that,
without active participation by top managers, these circles often had limited knowledge of the problems facing the company. As a result, they instead focused on visible--but frequently
trivial--problems in their immediate areas. The harder, cross-functional problems remained outside their scope of operations. These cross-functional problems were usually the "vital
few," which truly affected bottom-line results, customers and critical quality characteristics. Inevitably, quality circles quickly gained a reputation for working on problems that really
didn't matter. In one company these problems were called the "third water cooler problems," referring to a circle that spent months installing an extra water cooler to reduce the extra
steps taken by workers during a break.
Some experts suggest that the quality circle movement in the United States was taken over by human resource departments that emphasized
teamwork, brainstorming, listening, Delphi methods, multivoting and other so-called "soft skills." But as Donald M. Berwick, president and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare
Improvement, has often said about continuous quality improvement teams in health care, "We often have to remind them that the plural of 'opinion' is not 'data.'" Without a foundation in
data collection, process mapping, statistical methods, experimental design and business management, teams find it almost impossible to achieve significant results.
had the wonderful opportunity to serve as a judge during the International Exposition of Innovation and Quality Circles in Singapore. During the exposition, more than 600 people from 12 countries
shared the results of their quality circle activities. Based on a review of the teams' written submissions, seven teams from six countries were selected for the final competition. Each team's
submission was reviewed by a three-judge panel, and the teams then presented their projects in tightly scripted, 20-minute presentations during an open plenary session before the judges and all
I wish every CEO in the United States could have attended one of these sessions. If they had seen the quality of the presentations, the hard work done by the
teams and the stunning bottom-line results, I believe that quality circles would quickly find acceptance in the United States.
The winning team, from Tenaga Nasional Berhad in
Malaysia, the nation's electrical power company, put on quite a show. The team's mission was to reduce defects in grounding power poles. When it started, more than 20 percent of the poles weren't
properly grounded. To demonstrate how serious this problem can be, the team showed an improperly grounded pole releasing a surge of current into a small model house on stage. The house promptly
burst into flames.
Tenaga has switched from wooden to stressed-concrete poles, which last far longer in Malaysia's moist, tropical climate. These poles have a hole in their
centers through which the grounding wire is pulled. Using a one-meter model of the pole, the team demonstrated how the wire often snags and sometimes breaks inside the pole from too much stress.
After testing many solutions that didn't yield the desired results, the team designed a new tool--plastic guides that are fitted temporarily into the pole openings to permit the wire to slide
easily and prevent bending or kinking.
After documenting its results and the procedures for using this tool, the team bought kits and provided training for all installers in
its region, later expanding the offerings throughout Malaysia. This team has won awards within the company, at regional and national competitions in Malaysia and, now, in an international
competition. I think many U.S. managers would be surprised at the sophistication of this team's problem-solving methods and the quality of their presentation. Their own work forces could create
similar projects if given proper training and the right supportive infrastructure.
Many other projects presented proved that the quality circle methodology in Southeast Asia
has become quite formalized. The simple PDCA steps favored years ago have evolved into a method quite similar to Six Sigma processes now used by many companies in the United States. Many of the
tools are also the same.
Perhaps it's time to reevaluate our approach to quality and reintroduce these methods throughout our companies, rather than relying on a few Black
Belts to solve all our problems.
About the author
A. Blanton Godfrey is dean and
Joseph D. Moore Distinguished University Professor at North Carolina State University's College of Textiles. Prior to his current assignment, he served as chairman and CEO of Juran Institute Inc.
E-mail him at email@example.com .