Why Don’t We See More QC Circles?

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?


  1. Kevin Matthews

    January 25, 2011 - 12:42 am

    Hi Jon
    One of the first projects I did when I joined Toyota over 12 years ago was using the QC circles format, We used it not only to cost save in many different area`s all over the factory but also to develope members using the 7 QC tools and help with team building. We had roughly 6 people in the team and we all had our own jobs to do with gathering Data and improvimg with good strong countermeasures. We then presented back on an A3 Format our results again as a team.

  2. Matt Wrye

    January 25, 2011 - 6:54 am

    Jon –
    I completely agree that lean isn’t new (here is a post I had on the subject: http://beyondlean.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/lean-isnt-new/). One aspect that I missed was the QC Circles. It is a great concept/tool that should be brought back to life with TWI, strategy deployment and others. The QC Circles increased the quality but also decreased the lead time and cut cost all through employee engagement. If I remember right, the QC Circles would be led by employees and mostly as volunteers before or after their shift. That is true engagement.
    Thanks for bring the QC Circles forward.

  3. Mark Graban

    January 25, 2011 - 3:18 pm

    Your sensei might be shocked at the state of many healthcare organizations in 2011, then.
    There’s such an underinvestment in what healthcare calls “management engineers” or IE’s or people who are trained well in operations.
    This is different than in manufacturing, where a traditional non-Lean company (such as my GM plant in 1995) would still likely have a lot of process engineers and industrial engineers who would be doing something, even if it was the wrong things (like increasing buffers to cover operational problems, as I was once asked to do)… you can retrain those folks to start doing lean/right things.
    Hospitals are more like Toyota if they only had brilliant design engineers – if they could design a Prius, but then would struggle to produce in high volumes. Hospitals are full of brilliant Prius designers… and not enough industrial engineers. Clearly, we need both skill sets. Think Toyota and Intel, even. This is changing in healthcare, but is it changing fast enough?
    That’s one reason I support and participate in the Society for Health Systems organizations (IE’s in healthcare, basically).

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