"Quality-control circles" in the workplace have come full circle -- from the United States to Japan, and back to the US. But where will they end up? In the early 1950s, at the urging of American consultants, a few Japanese industries adopted a concept then neglected in the US -- giving employees a voice in controlling the quality of their work. At the time, "Made in Japan" meant little more than jerry-built contraptions, like yo-yos that failed to return to your hand.
Although the credit is not clear, it is generally assumed that Joseph M. Juran and Edward Deming, both then at New York University, and A. V. Feigenbaum of General Electric took the idea of "quality circles" to Japan.
"Here were the Japanese straight out of the feudal era and a few men gave them 'the word,'" half jokes Dr. Juran, who has since introduced "QCs" to over 40 nations.
Now Japan sets world standards for product excellence. One reason is the QC process -- small committees of factory or office workers who analyze and solve production problems that influence quality. A typical circle -- ideally, about 10 workers each -- is given short training in research, statistics, and presentation so meetings won't become complaint sessions. The workers discuss problems -- such as assembly line delays -- and come up with solutions in work habits, technology, or whatever. Experience shows that management usually listens to their recommendations.
As of 1979, about 10 million Japanese, or about one-fifth of the work force, were involved in QCs. They were first tried in the US in 1974 by Lockheed's space and missile unit in Sunnyvale, Calif. Estimates on the number of US companies that have so far adopted QCs range from 250 to 2,500, but the list already includes such giants as General Motors, American Airlines, and Honeywell Corporation.
The proper question for American managers, Dr. Juran says, is notm who is responsible for quality. "Quality is an abstraction. It is better to break work down into parts of the process, and then restate the question. Start by asking what actions and decisions are taken by each person, and who checks and verifies the product."
Some industries, such as electronics, find that quality means just keeping workers' hands off the product. Foolproofing an assembly-line or other process will likely happen in other industries as well, Dr. Juran says.
"For American companies, which tend to have larger, highly centralized organizations than in Japan, QCs will have a major impact," he says.
Quality circles differ from European-style codetermination, where workers sit on corporate boards, or Japanese consensus decisionmaking, where policy changes are a long process of seeking companywide agreement.
Rather, quality-circle advocates say that QCs change routine, monotonous jobs into ones that are designed for the workers and by the workers. "Control is done part-time by the worker, not the inspector," says Dr. Juran, who has been in management since 1924.
"QCs improve human relations by increasing participation and communication between management and workers," he says. "This is the most exciting part of QCs." By asking workers to participate in improving their own area of work, he adds, "it helps people to use their education." Thus, many college graduates or other trained people who are considered "underemployed" exercise more decisionmaking.
If US industry is not careful, its quest to copy the Japanese in higher productivity and better quality may end up as a revolution in worker participation on the job, he says.
Best of all, perhaps, is that workers find the circles challenging, allowing them to take part in shaping their work. Just talking to executives is a thrill for some workers, while others are proud to have their suggestions end up saving big bucks for the company.
Some unions resist QCs, because they believe the increased productivity will eventually mean fewer jobs all around. "We won't know until later this decade whether that is true," Dr. Juran says.
"But the export of jobs should show American workers that they have a stake in working with management. Company management should take union leaders to see Japanese workers, what they are doing, and where American jobs could end up."
Union pay is rising faster in Japan than in any other industrial nation, he says. And unions work harder to increase "the size of the rice bowl" for all.
"The Japanese join a company for life. In a sense, American workers join an industry for life. But they have not fully realized how to help the companies increase their competitiveness."
But Dr. Juran adds that quality circles have little to do with quality. "Engineers and managers have the greatest influence through new designs. Only about 10 percent of Japan's quality improvement is due to QCs. To go after quality, go after the design of products.That's what Japan did."
Designers, he says, should understand the distinction between how a product shouldm be used and how people actuallym use it. Reality must win out over a designer's concept.
In the next decade, Western economies will see more casualties in certain industries, such as refrigerators, due to Japanese quality of products.
But he adds: "The West is pretty powerful -- it still has big markets, big resources, and a history of getting itself straightened out. By the 1990s, the West will be back in stride. But for the 1980s, the Japanese will be ever ahead."