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Quality Circles: A powerful technique to engage and motivate employees

7 May 2015 03:12 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Quality Circles, a Japanese invention, is now popular in many parts of the world and is one of the few management techniques which has withstood the test of time, having first emerged in Japan in the 1960s. 
In many Asian countries, Quality Circles are gaining so much popularity, that at the last Annual Convention, which incidentally was in Sri Lanka, one thousand participants from several Asian countries attended.
A Quality Circle is a group of employees, from the same work area, who have been encouraged to get together to systematically analyse and solve a work related problem, usually pertaining to quality improvement or performance improvement in general. 

Tackling manufacturing defects
When Quality Circles first appeared in Japan, it was used mainly to tackle manufacturing defects, thereafter they spread to other functions to improve productivity, to improve sales, to improve customer service and so on. 
Finally it spread to organisations other than manufacturing, and is now popular in offices, government departments, military, and even in schools. They give themselves a name, appoint a leader, and undergo training on how to systematically select a problem, analyse it, generate possible solutions, select a solution, present to management, and finally implement and incorporate the solution as a standard operating procedure. 
A circle has about five to ten members and there could be several Circles in one section and many in the same organisation.

Although traditional Circles were formed voluntarily and not appointed by management, current practices vary from being pure voluntary, to being encouraged by management, to even being nominated by management. 
In fact in some companies in Singapore, you are assigned to a particular Circle on the day you join the organisation. Similarly traditional Circles consisted of only non-executive level employees but today you would find Circles being formed by executive level persons too. When I promoted Quality Circles at the Merchant Bank of Sri Lanka I had to allow membership upto Assistant Manager level because we had very few non-executive level employees. 
Quality Circles are not for management level persons because improvement is an intrinsic part of their job. Quality Circles are not Task Forces appointed for a particular task. They are more permanent than a Task Force and will go on tackling one problem after another. 

Problem selection
Problem selection is also left to the Circle, and if they have been trained adequately they would invariably select one which has the highest impact on the organisation. 
Quality Circles are taught to define a problem with numerical data. An example of a successful problem selection was when Quality Circles were commenced at the Employees’ Trust Fund Board, one Circle in the Claim Processing Division selected the problem of incomplete filling of the claim application by the claimants. 
They analysed the problem and found that of the 8,000 claim applications received per month about 40 percent was rejected and returned because one or more essential items of information were missing. A considerable amount of administrative work was involved in preparing and sending letters back to the claimants pointing out the deficiencies. The Circle took up the challenge and systematically analysed and quantified the reasons for rejects. 
They found that among the many ambiguous questions asked in the application form, one question - “name of spouse” - in the Sinhala application had the most number of blanks. The Sinhala name for spouse being “kalathraya” was not at all familiar to most claimants and either they left it blank or gave a wrong answer misunderstanding the question. The Circle having noted all the misunderstood questions prepared an instruction sheet which was issued with the application resulting in the 40 percent rejects being reduced to just a few. The circle was extremely pleased with the result; their own solution.

Statistical techniques
Quality Circles are taught statistical techniques, and how to draw graphs and charts. They are also taught non-numerical analysis techniques such as the Cause & Effect Diagram (Ishikawa Diagram) etc. Since Sri Lanka’s workforce is mostly educated and they hardly have an opportunity to use what they learnt in school, they love to use numbers, analyse figures, and draw graphs and charts. They feel they can realise their full potential by this engagement. In fact there have been cases where workers have taken the graphs and charts to their homes to show that they are not mere labourers but also using their brains.
Japan claims that part of their success in rapid economic growth was that they used the brains of all their employees. They say this was in contrast to the American systems introduced during General McArthurs period just after World War 11, where workers had to strictly adhere to the standard operating instructions and were not allowed to think. In fact the joke was that workers were expected to keep all their personal belongings in the locker before entering the factory floor and this included keeping their brains too in the locker, since brains were not allowed in the factory, only hands were required.

My first experience
I first witnessed a Quality Circle presentation in 1980 during a training programme in Japan and during a visit to the NEC factory. It fascinated me. The enthusiasm and excitement of the workers surprised me. 
When I came back, I tried to implement the technique in the factory I worked in. Hearing of my interest in Quality Circles the American company we had a collaboration with at the time immediately sent me a heap of articles from newspapers and journals in US and Europe about the implementation of Quality Circles and describing the success stories and failures. 
In fact this was more useful than the information I picked up in Japan. Unfortunately my efforts failed because the management culture in my organisation was certainly far from encouraging employee involvement and engagement.In fact many of my peers warned me that since I was trying to introduce a concept opposite to the generally held beliefs of the Chairman, my position too would be in danger! I gave up, and but soon got an opportunity when I left and joined another organisation as the CEO. Quality Circles would never work without an environment where employee involvement and participatory management are appreciated.
Many people ask me how Quality Circles could work in Sri Lanka when the average Sri Lankan worker is lazy and would avoid work if he could. 

Fitting model
My experience has been different. Sri Lankan workers are more educated and will therefore thrive in an environment where their full potential is realised, where there is more democracy at work, and where they are more engaged. 
There are many motivational models that support Quality Circles but the model that fits best is the Hackman/Oldham Job Characteristic Model of Motivation. 
They list Skill Variety, Task Identity, Task Significance, Autonomy, and Feedback as the required job characteristics that motivate. Most Sri Lankans have skills that are not used in their jobs. 
Quality Circles have provided opportunities for workers who have such unused artistic talents to decorate the presentation slides, those who have poetry skills to make presentations in verse, those who have drama skills to present in a dramatic form, and so on. Quality Circle presentations in Japan are mostly very technical, but in India and Sri Lanka they are very often in the form of drama, verse, song etc. Task Identity is provided because they could identify with the improved product or procedure the Circle has developed. Task Significance is realised when they see that their efforts have contributed to a significant improvement in the performance of the organisation. Similarly Autonomy and Feedback too are achieved by engaging in Quality Circles. 
At Dankotuwa Porcelain where there were several A level qualified youth who had studied science subjects, they revelled in projects which required some knowledge of physics and chemistry rather than immersing a plate into a glaze solution continuously for eight hours. 

Much to gain
Sri Lankan organisations have much to gain from Quality Circles. Plantation companies, armed forces, schools, manufacturing organisations, banks, government organisations, utility services, retail shops and many more organisations in Sri Lanka have tried and succeeded with Quality Circles. An equal number have failed because they were implemented with wrong objectives or with poor knowledge. 
A well formulated programme is unlikely to fail. I too have had my share of obstacles but learnt from the experience. A good example was at the Employees Trust Fund Board where the programme had great success initially and the motivation level was very high. While the Trade Union President was fully supportive, some militant committee members who saw this as a great threat to the union threatened the Circle leaders who thereupon decided to stop the programme immediately. I did not push but kept feeding information about others success stories. Finally the former Circle members restarted the programme after about a year on their own,and developed it to such an extent that we had a full days programme of presentations by all Circles at the BMICH where even their family members were invited.

(Sunil Wijesinha is a management consultant specialising in Productivity Improvement and Japanese Management Techniques. He was a former President of the Japan Sri Lanka Technical & Cultural Association (JASTECA) and the only Sri Lankan to be awarded the APO Regional Award for productivity promotion in the Asia Pacific region. He was the founder President of the Quality Circle Association of Sri Lanka as well as the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Quality and Productivity. He has experience in implementing Quality Circles in many organisations where he was the CEO and as a consultant to many companies. He has authored a book on “Introduction to Quality Circles”.

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