Quality circles saw their heyday in the United States in the 1980s; they have nearly disappeared in the 21st century. Some organizations still use them -- or a variation of their concept -- and invite key employees to participate in quality circles as a form of quality control. Despite the employer and employees' best efforts, quality circles come with disadvantages. Consider those disadvantages before implementing this concept in your small business.
Birth of Quality Circles
Quality circles were born out of W. Edwards Deming's lectures on the pitfalls of the American structure of quality control within manufacturing and industrial facilities during the World War II era. Deming refuted the common practice of giving line managers and engineers 85 percent of the quality control responsibility and giving the actual employees on the line only 15 percent of quality control responsibility. The Japanese took note of Deming's argument and shifted quality control to the employees on the line, rather than waiting until production was complete and inspected by the managers and engineers. This, in turn, ensured the quality of the product during the manufacturing process when adjustments could be made, instead of waiting until completion when it was too late.
Implementation of Quality Circles
Japan tested Deming's theories and enlisted key line employees as members of quality circles. These employees met with upper management and engineers to discuss any problems with quality they saw on the line during the manufacturing process. This gave management and engineering the ability to tackle production issues at the source and streamline manufacturing to ensure all products would pass quality control standards upon final inspection.
Quality Circles in the United States
Aerospace giant Lockheed visited Japanese manufacturing plants in the 1970s and brought the concept of quality circles to the United States. By the 1980s, quality circles had morphed from the manufacturing industry to Fortune 500 companies, which also formed quality circles to address issues concerning employee relations among other operational issues.
As the United States entered the 1990s, the National Labor Relations Board took a look at quality circles and presented, in legal fashion, the first disadvantage of them. The NLRB ruled that certain types of quality circles violated the 1935 Wagner Act, because they formed what the NLRB considered "company unions and management-dominated labor organizations," according to Inc. magazine. Companies that allowed these types of quality circles found themselves quickly in trouble with NLRB.
By 2000, quality circles were considered passé and swept aside for newer management techniques that, perhaps, did not draw the attention of the NLRB to company practices. Quality circles also simply outgrew their fad. Many circles were improperly implemented and, consequently, failed to serve the original purpose of ensuring quality control at the employee level. In fact, these problems were discussed but not realized many years previous to the turn of the century. In a 1983 abstract, titled "Exploring Quality Circles in the Provision of Therapeutic Recreation Services," disadvantages of quality circles were listed as improper or complete lack of management support, the time required to implement the quality circles, company failure to hire consultants for the circles, and, as discussed by the NLRB, improper composition or structure of the quality circles.
Perhaps the most logical disadvantage of quality circles is the most obvious one: Quality circles lack the power to change existing company structure and implemented procedures. A group of employees, while possibly right on the points they are making, simply do not have the power to make the necessary changes they are suggesting. No quality circle will accomplish its task if those in power do not listen to and implement what the employees are suggesting. Consequently, having the employees pulled off of their duties to meet with management and discuss possible solutions in vain wastes time and money.