ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR: ARE QUALITY CIRCLES EFFECTIVE
Quality Circles became popular during the mid 1980s, when buzzwords such as Total Quality Management and efficiency teams became popularized in U.S. companies seeking to gain a competitive advantage over international production giants including Japanese manufacturers. A great deal of controversy exists however, as to whether or not quality circles truly accomplish what they are set out to do: improve organizational efficiency, worker productivity and performance. While many companies have argued that quality circles have resulted in dramatic cost savings, a large body of research suggests that quality circles have generally failed in a majority of companies that have implemented them. The aim of this study is to examine the nature of quality circles, and to ascertain whether or not they are effective mechanisms for organizational improvement.
ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR: ARE QUALITY CIRCLES EFFECTIVE
According to research, more than 50% of the population at large believes that American people are not as productive as they can be; a view supported by the labor force and organizations across the nation, where three quarters of workers admit they are not realizing their full potential at work (Yankelovich and Associates, 1983: 6-7; Bowman, 1989). As a result of this, organizations have set out to improve the quality of work life and production. One mechanism that companies are investing in to improve the quality of work and services is quality circle programs. Great controversy exists however, as to whether or not quality circles are truly effective.
Quality circles have been along for a long time; having survived economic recessions and cutback management, many corporate leaders still believe that quality circles are the key to solving any and all quality management issues (Business Week, 1982; Pascarella, 1984; Bowman, 1989). Among the issues that quality circles address include increased demands for services in the face of fiscal uncertainty (Bowman, 1989; Jarrett, 1985).
This paper aspires to examine the following question: are quality circles effective mechanisms in organizations? Proponents of quality circles have long hailed their reported benefits; often defined as team oriented work performance groups, quality circles were envisioned as a tool that organizations could utilize to enhance worker productivity, motivation and performance. Detractors of such circles have argued however, that quality circles are more "quick fix schemes" adopted by hurried managers seeking out a quick fix solution to long standing corporate dilemmas. There are many organizations that have claimed great success using quality circles; studies suggest however, that in a large majority of companies that have implemented quality circles, the failure rate is greater than 50%. This paper intends to ascertain whether or not quality circles are truly beneficial or wasteful in organizations.
To understand quality circles one must first define the concept. Quality circles may be described as "small, voluntary, homogenous, problem-solving employee groups" (Bowman, 1989). Quality circles generally appealing as the premier strategy for "mobilizing human talent to enhance competitive performance" (Bowman, 1989).
Government agencies are but one example of organizations currently utilizing quality circles as a strategic mechanism. There are currently more than 2,500 Quality Circles operating within federal agencies and in state projects including those in the following: Missouri, California and Florida (Bowman, 1989; International Association of Quality Circles, 1984; Dawson, 1983).
There are those that oppose implementation of quality circles, believing that they are ineffective. This is true of many companies operating in Japan, where firms who have used quality circles have found them ineffective (Bowman, 1989; Cole, 1980:3). There are reported instances of both successes and failures of such programs in the United States (Bowman, 1989; Business Week, 1982; Smeltzer and Kedia, 1985:31). Thus a more comprehensive examination of them is necessary to assess whether or not they should be continued from an organizational perspective.
Quality circles entail a small group of people performing similar functions, meeting on a regular basis in order to analyze problems and develop solutions and recommendations on continuous improvement. Based on the concept of group dynamics and "worker participation" quality circles have been advocated as an effective way to not only boost productivity and quality, but also enhance a corporate culture with a team oriented outlook (Bowman, 1989).
Three objectives of quality circles may be defined, including the following: (1) task improvement leading to a better work process, (2) employee development "based on training," and (3) team building, which occurs through "Participative problem solving" (Bowman, 1989; Blair and Whitehead, 1984:20). For the idea of quality circles to work, one must first realize that organizations must be trained to integrate them into the organization, so that they can evolve over extended periods of time.
More organizations than not implement programs of "crisis control," attempting to find short-term solutions to answers rather than developing strategic programs oriented toward future excellence and problem alleviation (Bowman, 1989; Hayes and Abernathy, 1981). Quality circles are sometimes associated with these "quick fixes" where organizational leaders seek out quick answers and "promising new techniques" in an effort to alleviate corporate problems (Bowman, 1989). Certainly in this type of environment quality circles might provide short-term fixes to organizational dilemmas, however they will provide disappointing long-term outcomes if they are not constantly attended to, developed and incorporated into the overall organizational structure.
Implementing quality circles requires successfully often also requires a "change in organizational philosophy" (Bowman, 1989). Work conditions at the outset may not be compatible to implementation of quality circles; management must take an active role to restructure the conditions in order for implementation to successfully occur.
For quality circles to work they must over time develop values and idealisms that are also consistent with those of management in order to ensure compatibility with the organization (Bowman, 1989).
Blue Cross of Washington and Alaska is an organization that reported more efficient employee procedures resulting in part from implementation of quality circles (Marks, 1986). Among the benefits reported included a savings of $430,000 over a three-year period; Hertz Rent a Car in Oklahoma City also reported increasing car availability as a result of innovations developed from such circles (Marks, 1986). Management experts however, are still disputing such savings claiming from organizations, claiming that "QC's more often fail than they work" (Marks, 1986). These detractors argue that in most situations the technique is short-term beneficial only, and does not truly address problems of poor productivity and employee morale (Marks, 1986). Typically discussions within quality circles are limited to the quantity and quality of work; for example, paperwork and material waste, machine maintenance and cooperation between departments are among the topics that might be discussed (Marks, 1986).
Proponents still support the notion that quality circles can work on an extended basis. Robert Cole, a noted sociologist at the University of Michigan noted that "By increasing employee participation in workplace decisions, increasing job variety and making more effective use of worker potential" quality of work life and organizational efficiency would be capitalized on (Marks, 1986; Cole, 1980).
Proponents have suggested that one of the reasons quality circles fail is that managers to often utilize easy to implement packages to get them started, but then fail to nurture them adequately (Marks, 1986).
Quality Circles hit their "hey day" during the mid 1980s, where studies suggested that more than 90% of Fortune '500' companies had implemented QC circles into their organizational structures (Li-Ping Tang, et. al, 1993). During the 1990s a survey conducted of Fortune 1,000 showed a smaller increase in utilization of such circles, but nonetheless a still noteworthy increase (Li-Ping Tang, et. al, 1993). Despite these statistics, within the U.S. QC programs overall have failed in greater than 60% of the companies that have implemented them (Li-Ping Tang, et. al, 1993). This suggests that a more thorough analysis need be conducted of implementation strategy and longevity to assess what specifically regarding quality circles is failing.
Lawler and Mohram (1985) identified many phases and potential variables that could lead to failure among QC circles. These included low participation rates in volunteer circles, "resistance by staff groups and middle management," costs that were prohibited and benefits and savings not actually realized (Lawler & Mohrman, 1992; Li-Ping Tang, 1993). In fact, one study noted that a frequently given reason by employees for lack of participation was a perception that "QC's do not accomplish much" (Li-Ping, Tang, 1993; Dean, 1985).
Quality Circles also go hand in hand with the idea of Total Quality Management, also popularized in the mid-1980's (Giroux & Landry, 1998). TQM also has many proponents and detractors. Quality Circles can help firmly implant a successful TQM program within an organization, if and when utilized correctly. However, in contemporary organizational management, a great deal of "confusion" still exists related to the exact definitions and perspectives on quality management, inclusive of quality circles (Wilkinson and Wilmott, 1995; Giroux & Landry, 1998). According to Dean and Bowen, the definition of quality still "remains a hazy and ambiguous concept" (Giroux & Sylvain, 1998). Those evaluating quality circles and programs traditionally emphasize qualitative and human aspects of programs rather than proposed technical…