A quality control circle, or quality circle refers to a group of workers who meet to continually identify issues in the workplace, analyze the issue, and work together to develop a solution. These circles are comprised of a small group of individuals who do similar work or work in the same department and are led by a supervisor.
The concept of quality circles was introduced by W. Edwards Deming in the 1950s and was quickly adapted by Toyota and other Japanese businesses. It is now a common practice in Lean companies and the idea of these groups meeting regularly is an effective tool for promoting the culture of continuous improvement; quality circles meet routinely to address problems as they occur. Including and encouraging employee participation is critical, as they are considered the experts of their jobs. They see first-hand what can be improved and what activities may be wasteful and should feel comfortable in making suggestions.
The structure of meetings using quality circles will generally follow the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, the ideal cycle for continuous improvement projects. Discussions in a quality circle can range from problems in quality to problems in safety, and those participating are typically trained in formal problem-solving methods. After the circle analyzes the issue at hand, the group will likely present their findings and solutions to higher management or other leaders.
The book Quality Beyond Six Sigma by Ron Basu and J. Nevan Wright, several conditions necessary to the success of quality circles were listed. Some of these include:
- The circle must be staffed entirely by volunteers.
- Participants in the quality circle should represent different functional activities.
- Management should not choose the issues addressed by the quality circle.
- The quality circle should choose their leader from within the circle.
As these points highlight, there is a delicate balance between management’s role in quality control circles. It will be important for managers to provide the proper tools (like formal problem-solving training) to their workers, but to not overstep in the process.