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What is a Quality Circle?

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.

What Is a Quality Circle?

Quality circles, both the continuous process improvement method and solutions focused work group team, were developed from the principles of American business experts like W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran. Quality circle process improvement methodologies and quality circles on the shop floor were first put into practice by Japanese companies aiming to improve the quality of their products.

Quality circles are not limited to product quality issues. Quality circles can also take up safety concerns. Issues like housecleaning and workplace hazards affect both product quality and safety. Unlike tiger teams that bring in individuals from many different disciplines to develop cross-disciplinary solutions to quality problems, quality circles work best when everyone is within the same functional discipline and same work location.

PDCA Quality Circle

PDCA stands for plan-do-check-act. In the "Plan" phase, ideas to improve product quality are proposed and selected. During the "Do" phase, the quality improvement is tried on a small scale, such as a single production line.

The process change is monitored and studied in the "Check" phase. If the idea has been proven out, the project moves to the "Act" phase, and the idea is adopted across the organization.

If the change did not lead to the desired result, the "Act" phase involves undoing the change and restoring the trial location to its prior condition. In total quality management, the PDCA cycle or quality loop returns to the top. Then the planning of the next project begins.

DMAIC Quality Circle

DMAIC stands for the "Define" - "Measure" - "Analyze" - "Improve" - "Control" steps of the DMAIC quality circle. During the Define phase, the problem is selected. During the Measure phase, the problem's impact can be determined. If the problem is product quality, the Measure phase involves determining the defect rate or reject rate. If the problem is customer satisfaction, the measurement could be customer satisfaction rates or product returns.

During the Analyze phase, different possible solutions are identified and analyzed. The best solution is then selected from implementation in the Improve phase.

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During the Improve phase, the process improvement is rolled out across the entire organization. The Control phase of the DMAIC process does not have an equivalent step in the PDCA quality circle.

In DMAIC, the Control phase involves additional monitoring to ensure that the process changes are followed and having the intended effect. This is often called the "sustain the gain" step. After the new process is stable and working as intended, the quality circle returns to the "Define" step for the next process improvement initiative.

Quality Circle Teams

Quality circles are small groups that work in the same area who meet regularly to improve the workplace. Quality circles are composed of small groups from three to a dozen people. The quality circle members generally work in the same work area or production line. They bring up problems or quality issues. They will present problems to management that they cannot solve themselves.

Quality circle membership should be open to anyone who wants to bring up concerns or ideas. Each work area, work shift and discipline can have their own quality circle.

Quality circles need to be small enough to allow for intimate group discussions, when no one needs to wait a long time to speak or does not have time to contribute. Each person needs to have the opportunity to bring up, discuss and defend his or her ideas. Open, engaging discussions with every opposing viewpoint aired are a prerequisite to significant improvements.

Quality Circle Phases

Quality circles have three phases. In the first phase is the problem-solving phase. Employees identify and analyze problems in their work space. The second phase is monitoring. Did the changes actually improve quality? Are new processes being followed correctly?

The third phase is the innovation phase, when groups move on to the next logical problem to solve. After repeating these three phases, groups can become self-directing, where employees meet and review problems with little assistance from management unless outside resources are required.

Quality circles can be part of any process improvement methodology, which ideas flowing up from employees on the shop floor.

Quality circles can be part of any process improvement methodology, which ideas flowing up from employees on the shop floor.

Quality Circles and Process Improvement

Quality circles fit into any total quality management system, such as Six Sigma, Lean Sigma and Lean Manufacturing. Quality circles can propose ideas for small process improvement projects or join large initiatives. Quality circles do not require training like Six Sigma Yellow Belts. Quality circles are not limited to manufacturing environments. Service providers can set up quality circles in the shipping department, sales order processing and engineering departments.

IT departments can set up quality circles to review methods to improve data quality, from reducing typographical errors to improving information security. Meetings should be kept short, around an hour, to avoid impacting productivity while being held at least once a month to bring up problems before they become severe. This allows teams to review the current state of affairs and recommend improvements. If large Six Sigma or Lean Manufacturing projects stem from these suggestions, that is taken up at a different meeting with management.

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