How to Improve Quality and Work Performance

A critical element in an ongoing quality assurance program is follow-through. Managers, supervisors and those who actually do the work need support, recognition and encouragement in their quality assurance efforts.

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In Japan, and increasingly in the United States and Europe, this support and ongoing attention to quality at the “grass roots” or “worker” level is supplied by some¬thing known as the Quality Circle. A Quality Circle is a relatively small group of people (5 to 20) who come from the same work group and who meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly to discuss quality problems. The group is usually led by a supervisor or senior employee.

Quality Circle members learn statistical quality control principles and participate in study groups to up¬grade quality practices in their department or work unit. Circle membership is voluntary and members work on both their own and on company time.

In the Circle meetings, members present current quality problems and solicit from the group ideas for solving the problems. Individuals are encouraged to participate in the idea-generating process and to take on specific assignments and improvement projects. Recognition for achievement comes in the form of company awards and the honor of demonstrating new procedures, methods and ideas to others.

According to Joji Arai of the Japan Productivity Center, there are currently six million Japanese workers participating in more than 600,000 Quality Circles. This represents quite a leap from 1962, when 200 employees participated in 20 registered Quality Circles.

Robert E. Cole, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, reported in his book, Work, Mobility and Participation, that the “six basic principles operative in Quality Circles (Q.C.) can be applied in the U.S., regardless of whether a company adopts Quality Circles or not.

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These principles are found not only in the Circles in Japan, but in a variety of practices in Japanese companies.” The principles are:

• Trust your employees. Expect that they will work to implement organizational goals if given a chance.

• Build employee loyalty to the company. It will pay off.

• Invest in training and treat employees as resources which, if cultivated, will yield economic returns to the firm. This means developing employee skills. Implicit in this perspective is aiming for long-term employee commitment to the organization.

• Recognize employee accomplishments. Symbolic rewards mean more than you think.

• Decentralize decision making.

• Regard work as a cooperative effort, with workers and managers doing the job together. This implies consensual decision making.

R.C. (Bob) Richards, manager of the western office of Consulting Associates, Inc., a Southfield, MI, consulting firm working in the Quality Circle area, says, “Quality Circles are not just another ‘program,’ ‘gimmick’ or ‘project.’ Quality Circles are the embodiment of a philosophy, a way of life. As a result, not all companies are ‘ready’ to install Quality Circles.

Special management skills and philosophies must be in the making or in place before Quality Circles can be installed with success. Your organization must be convinced that the key to productivity lies in its people, and that their commitment, involvement, participation and maybe even self-management are the keys to making the tools, equipment and facilities work.”

Ed Yager, a principal of Consulting Associates, Inc., believes that Quality Control circles can, and do, work in the United States for the following reasons:

1. Quality Circles aim directly at quality improvement. Nearly every¬one wants to be associated with improving quality, the results of which can be clearly measured and given an absolute dollar value.

2. Quality Circles do not require any change to other systems by which the company operates. There’s no need to make large investment, rearrange factories, create job enrichment or develop new financial reward systems. Motivation is natural and intrinsic and results from the participation and responsibility the worker takes for his or her own job.

3. Quality Circles can and should be implemented on a pilot-line basis, not on some grandiose, companywide scale. The program should be allowed to grow of its own accord.

4. The training department has an opportunity to involve the manufacturing management and the quality control or quality assurance management in investigating the feasibility and ultimate implementation of the program and in selecting facilitators and group leaders. Thus, the training function is able to ad¬dress the important requirement of management ownership of a concept that works and that is of value to each individual employee.

5. Quality Circles give employees the opportunity for involvement, participation in work improvement, ownership of change, challenge and opportunity for personal growth and measurable change.

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Establishing a Q.C. system as part of your quality assurance efforts takes time, commitment from management and training for the Q.C. members. Yager suggests that some appropriate Q.C. training topics are:
• Q.C. philosophy and guidelines for making a group successful
• Brainstorming
• Histogram (or other frequency-distribution techniques)
• Pareto Principle
• Cause-and-effect diagramming
• Management presentation skills

Yager believes that case studies are an effective way to teach quality control to a new group. He also suggests that, eventually, after a group has been operating for awhile, training in such advanced topics as sampling procedures, data collection, data arrangement, control charts, stratification and scatter diagramming will be useful to the Quality Circle members. But such topics would be too sophisticated for most start-up groups.

Though only 40 to 50 companies have begun experimenting with Quality Circles, preliminary results are encouraging. W.S. Rieker, for¬merly of Lockheed and now president of Quality Control Circles, Inc., was a key figure in Lockheed’s successful introduction of the Q.C. concept to American Industry. The west coast aerospace manufacturer’s results, Rieker reports, were very impressive.

Lockheed documented savings in the first two years of $2.8 million, this with only 15 Circles in full swing. In one operation, rejects were reduced from 25 to 30 per 1,000 working hours to less than 6 per 1,000 hours. Other research has shown promising indi¬rect impact on tardiness, absenteeism and work disruption.

While the approach is too new for long-term results evaluation, most consultants claim that a payback or break-even point of three to five months on the initial investment in time and train¬ing can be expected. And some consultants are even claiming a six-to-one payback for the first full year of Q.C. installations.

In a recent luncheon speech, Professor Cole pointed out that there are some danger points and shortcomings to Quality Circles. He specifically cited the following potential problems.

• Some organizations tend to implement Q.C.s in a top-down fashion, which leads workers to see Q.C.s as another management-imposed program.

• Though worker development is a critical part of the long-term effect of Q.C.s, this more subtle function tends to lose out to the choice for short-term productivity gains.
• No totally acceptable mechanism for involving unions— except as monitors—has evolved or been developed.
• Over the long run, the groups tend to lose spontaneity and become ritualistic.

Cole summarizes his feelings about the impact, value and future of Quality Circles this way:

I do not see the Q.C. approach as a panacea for management-worker relationships, although it is already being touted as such….

What the Q.C. does is to provide a vehicle for unlocking the potential for worker contributions to an organization. It is a vehicle for allowing the worker a sense of dignity, a sense of full participation in the organization, and an opportunity to develop his or her skills.

At the same time, it contributes to high- priority organizational goals, such as raising productivity, reducing costs, and improving quality control. It is not the only vehicle for these purposes, however, for many of these gains may be achieved by alternative methods. What is important is that some vehicle exists.

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Source : TRAINING Magazine

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