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Quality - quality circles and kaizen

Author: Jim Riley  Last updated: Sunday 23 September, 2012

Business studies students often come across the concept of quality circles, or "Kaizen". What does this mean and what are the practicalities of using Kaizen in a quality management system?

We saw in our revision note on total quality management that a key principle of quality management is that of "continuous improvement".

Continuous improvement means just what it says. It is a philosohy that encourages all employees in an organisation so that they perform their tasks a little better every day. It starts from the assumption that business processes (e.g. production methods, purchasing, recruitment) can always be improved.

So why the use of the term Kaizen? Kaizen is a system for generating and implementing employee ideas developed in Japan. The Kaizen suggestion scheme helped many Japanese companies improve quality and productivity, which allowed them to offer better products at lower prices and therefore increase their market share.

Much of the success of Kaizen came about because the system encouraged many small-scale suggestions that were cheap and quick to implement. They also came from shop-floor employees - who had a detailed appreciation of the benefit each change might make to the process concerned. By implementing many small improvements, the overall effect was substantial.

One of the most publicised aspects of the Japanese approach to quality management is the idea of Quality Circles or Kaizen teams.

Professor John Oakland (a leading authority on quality) defines a Quality Circle/Kaizen Team as a group of workers who do similar work and who meet:

>In normal working time
>Under the leadership of their supervisor
>To identify, analyse and solve "work-related" problems
>To recommend solutions to management

Evidence of successful Quality Circles suggests that there are no formal rules about how to organise them. However, the following guidelines are often suggested:

>The circle should not get too large - otherwise it becomes difficult for some circle team members to contribute effectively
>Meetings should be help away from the work area - so that team members are free from distraction
>The length and frequency of quality circle meetings will vary - but when a new circle is formed, it is advised to meet for about one hour, once per week. Thereafter, the nature of the quality problems to be solved should determine how often the circle needs to meet
>Quality circles should make sure that each meeting has a clear agenda and objective
>The circle should not be afraid to call on outside or expert help if needed

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