In the early 1990s I recall my Japanese sensei were absolutely appalled at the dearth of industrial engineers and production engineers within the ranks of the major American manufacturers who hired them as kaizen consultants. The cycles of downsizing in aerospace and defense industries had hit the industrial engineering field hard. It would not be overstating it to say that these Japanese consultants owed their livelihood to the terrible condition of most factories, most of which could have been fixed with a bit of will on the part of management and some dedicated industrial engineering skill. Luckily this trend has changed in the past decades and the value of production engineering has been increasingly recognized.
The lack of strong supervision, or on some cases any meaningful layers of supervision at all, was another thing that made my teachers tilt their head in puzzlement. Even today the span of control of a typical leader is far too large and ineffective, driven by direct-to-indirect labor ratios and financial models that are divorced from the reality that people who function in small teams can solve and prevent problems in ways that lower cost. Thanks to the efforts of authors, experts and conference organizers, TWI (Training Within Industry) is gaining popularity again, rapidly enabling the development of stronger supervision.
Suggestion systems have been making a slow, gradual comeback thanks to the popularity of lean manufacturing, and as the long-term benefits of engaging the total workforce in daily improvement slowly proves itself out. Oddly, none of my sensei ever asked, “Why doesn’t this company have a suggestion system?” even when it was clear that this method of kaizen was not used to engage the people. Perhaps this was due to the fact that they were hired to lead lean transformations, not coach the thought process that leads to small, daily, persistent improvement.
These are all positive and visible trends within industry, and increasingly also in the service and government fields that are adopting lean. But we are still missing many critical elements, systems and tools that make lean enterprises function at a high level. One of these is the QC Circle.
What are QC Circles? In this case QC stands for “quality control” but for all practical purposes QC should be thought of more generally as kaizen or scientific problem solving, originally focused on quality. Small groups led by a mentor or coach worked on improvement projects within their work area, typically a few hours per week after hours, applying the 7 QC tools and the scientific method to run experiments. The results were presented to management after each project lasting a few months.
These were immensely popular in the early days of the US manufacturing realizing that the Japanese were doing something different. Manuals were translated. Seminars were attended. QC Circles were formed. They were abandoned. That is a familiar cycle, but with IEs, TWI and suggestions systems making all making a comeback, why don’t we see more QC Circles today? The content is alive and well; the humble QC Storyline is the basis for the newly popularized “A3 thinking”, what we teach Six Sigma green belts is essentially the QC Circle fundamental tools and methods with some added acronyms such as DMAIC, some aspects of high performance work teams are modeled on QC Circles.
The lean community seems to be largely rediscovering ideas that were developed 100 years ago, abandoned, adopted, rediscovered, abandoned and discovered yet again. Perhaps QC Circles are the next thing for lean?