Understanding quality circles and how to adapt them for remote teams

Learn what quality circles aim to achieve and how to adapt them to quality assurance work both in-person and remotely.

A quality circle is a small, autonomous group of 3-10 employees who regularly meet to identify, analyze, and solve quality and production problems, as well as to enhance overall operations. As a critical part of Total Quality Management (TQM), quality circles aim to use the collective knowledge and passion of employees to improve organizational processes.

The concept of quality circles emerged in post-World War II Japan, and was significantly influenced by the work of two pioneers in quality management: W. Edwards Deming and Kaoru Ishikawa.

In the early 1960s, the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers sparked the “Quality Control Revolution,” introducing the concept of “quality control,” later termed “quality circles.” The first formally registered quality circle in the USA was at Lockheed Missile and Space Company in 1974. By 1977, Lockheed had saved 3 million dollars. Later on, quality circles gained popularity in companies such as Hughes Aircraft Company, Boeing, General Motors Corporation, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and Bank of America.

Beyond manufacturing, quality circle programs have been adopted and implemented in general medical care, government agencies, and IT companies.

Main objectives of quality circles

The main goal of implementing Total Quality Management (TQM) in general, and quality circles in particular, is to help companies survive and compete in the market by improving the quality of their services and goods, while reducing costs. Companies lacking TQM and quality circles risk being outperformed and replaced by more innovative competitors.

Objectives of quality circles are derived from the main goal of improving quality.

Main objectives for quality circles are to:

  • Create a pleasant workplace
  • Improve morale
  • Institute sound human relations
  • Establish a state of control
  • Enhance quality assurance
  • Increase income

Creating a pleasant workplace, enhancing morale, and establishing good human relations are prioritized because job satisfaction is one of the key predictors of quality assurance effectiveness. If employees enjoy their work, they are more likely to care about quality. Quality circles do not function well when participation is mandatory; they succeed when employees are genuinely interested in improving quality. Only when people like their work, will they want to take control of quality and improve it.

Improvement in quality assurance is achieved by systematically solving problems and inefficiencies in the workplace. As Ishikawa states, “It is well understood that better quality assurance is a key to quality control.” By regularly addressing workplace issues, the quality circle can enhance quality assurance, which in turn improves the quality of life for individual employees.

This principle of continuous improvement is also known as Kaizen in Japanese management philosophy. Regular meetings and ongoing discussions encourage improving processes, reducing defects, and improving overall quality. It is crucial to carry out quality circles on a permanent, regular basis; only then can improvements be sustained and built upon over time.

Quality circles imply that all employees, not just managers, are capable of improving quality and efficiency. They rely on employees’ relevant knowledge about work processes.

The key factor for achieving the objectives is constant learning and training.

Toyota implemented quality circles successfully. Ford, after losing market share to Toyota, launched the “After Japan” campaign in a desperate attempt to regain their position and enhance quality. They tried to replicate TQM and quality circles but failed. The reason for their failure was simple: Ford did not understand that constant learning and training, alongside improving work conditions, were the main factors in achieving success in quality circles implementation.

The outcome was that Ford had to cease car sales in Japan due to the inferior quality of their vehicles compared to Japanese cars. As Dr. Deming stated, “Survival is optional. No one has to change”.

How quality circles help with problem-solving in QA

In quality assurance, we face numerous problems daily: engineers refusing to write unit tests, buggy releases, unreliable test environments, managers pressing QA for time, etc. These problems are challenging to analyze and categorize, as their causes vary greatly, and QAs rarely have all the necessary information. Even if they had all the information, these problems might still be very difficult to fix, especially if QAs lack the authority to address managerial issues.

Quality circles can effectively solve various problems when they include individuals from diverse specializations: developers, system administrators, QA folks, managers, architects, support engineers. Anyone who’s involved in product development, support, and maintenance. Even marketers can be a good fit for a quality circle! 

First, more specializations mean a greater diversity of thought. Stafford Beer, the father of Operations Research — an analytical method of problem-solving and decision-making — proposed in his books that to efficiently solve a complex problem, representatives from different areas of expertise must be gathered. Their combined knowledge allows for a better understanding of the problem and the synthesis of a more effective solution.

In one of the quality circles gatherings I participated in, I witnessed the following case: the QA team was complaining that developers had recently started producing more buggy code. During the quality circle activity, we investigated the symptom and discovered that managers had recently started putting unrealistic deadlines upon developers. As a result, developers began passing features of subpar quality to QA. 

A manager who was part of the quality circle group explained that management started pressing developers for time because the developers were slowing down. Developers were slowing down because testers were blocking every release for a few days. QAs were blocking releases because more and more regressions were appearing. We sat with a developer and realized that in most cases, more regressions were appearing because the autotests environment was slowly degrading and autotests were becoming flaky, so developers couldn’t rely on them anymore and simply skipped them. This analysis was carried out within two hours, and by leveraging the cross-specialization within the group, we were able to identify a key factor influencing this problem.

Second, when people of different specializations work together on analyzing problems and devising solutions, they naturally bond. This bonding makes solving problems much easier. In the case above, a developer agreed to advocate for alerting everyone about test environment issues, a manager agreed to stop pushing developers for time, and QAs agreed to collaborate with developers on improving the test environment. Imagine how much time and effort it would take for a QA team to go through all the stages of approvals for each agreement required to solve the problem on their own.

Understanding the quality circle process

Before initiating quality circle activities, management needs to understand and be convinced of their importance for quality management. Without management support, quality circles will be as ineffective as they were at Ford. Management's commitment should involve either participating in quality circles or fully supporting them. This includes dedicating the necessary time and budget, and allowing the implementation of solutions to problems identified by the group.

Quality circles are formed by selecting small groups of 3-10 employees who are passionate about quality. Participation must be voluntary, as only innate passion motivates people to work effectively in quality circles. 

Best practice is to have an experienced problem-solver lead the initial sessions, allowing participants to gain experience in detecting and solving issues.

A problem in the workplace can be anything: from a flaky test to regular conflicts with the procurement team, from constant deadlines imposed by an inexperienced manager to a microservice frequently having bugs. Any issue that causes dissatisfaction among employees or reduces overall production efficiency is a potential problem. The diversity of specializations within the group requires each participant to precisely formulate the problem so that everyone understands it. This formalization demands thorough analysis and synthesis: to explain a problem to someone with limited knowledge of the topic, one must deeply understand the issue and provide a very clear explanation.

Quality circle sessions should be held regularly — weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. Without regularity, the initial motivation people have will fade. Each meeting should include at least four components: 

  • reviewing the results of previous actions,
  • identifying new problems,
  • brainstorming solutions, and
  • discussing and planning the implementation of these solutions.

During quality circle gatherings, everyone is invited to bring up problems and issues they encounter in their work. These problems are collected and discussed. Brainstorming sessions are then held to generate potential solutions. Creative thinking should be encouraged, ensuring all members contribute ideas. Detailed action plans for implementing solutions should be developed together.

Management should avoid setting KPIs, OKRs or any other form or MBO (Management by Objectives) targets for quality circles. The focus should be on learning, collaboration, and continuous improvement, with quality improvements as a natural outcome of creating a pleasant workplace where employees feel valued and motivated. There’s a good scientific consensus on the fact that job satisfaction toggles greater commitment to quality. 

Quality circles require sustained effort and should be viewed as a long-term strategy on continuous learning and improvement.

Adapting quality circles for remote work

Quality circles were originally designed for manufacturing environments where employees were all physically present, and most of the quality issues were tangible. Even if remote work had been possible at that time, quality circles could not have functioned remotely, as problems needed to be identified within the physical production environment.

Today, many companies operate remotely, and in software development, we produce intangible goods. There is no physical manufacturing; most problems are software- or people-related. This means that quality circles can also be conducted fully remotely.

Certainly, brainstorming activities are more effective when people meet in person, as we are naturally more creative in such settings. If it is possible to arrange for quality circle gatherings to happen in a physical location, that would be ideal. However, if in-person meetings are not feasible, carrying out quality circles remotely still makes sense.

In a remote work setting, the core principles of quality circles — collaboration, continuous improvement, and employee engagement — remain the same. However, the methods of implementation need to be adjusted.

First, office ergonomics are usually well thought out, but at home, not everyone has good lighting, decent ventilation, comfortable furniture, and a low noise level. If the home office environment isn’t optimal, the productivity of quality circle sessions will be very low, as collective brainstorming can be very energy-draining. It might be worth considering sponsoring employees to use good coworking spaces at least for quality circle gatherings.

Second, as remote work allows for much more flexibility and enables hiring people across different time zones, it can be challenging to find a suitable time for everyone. Quality circle meetings should be scheduled at a time when attendees can fully focus and it is neither too early in the morning nor too late in the evening, ensuring that participants can think and contribute effectively.

Third, in a remote work environment, some people may never meet in person. This can reduce psychological safety, which is essential for the efficiency of quality circles. If people are afraid to speak up, they will not discuss problems, and no facilitation can make them do so. For example, consider a situation where one of the directors participates in a quality circle alongside a junior QA engineer. Does your company culture allow the junior QA to freely discuss issues, such as problems with the onboarding process? Would the junior QA feel confident and not fear being perceived as “stupid” or “not good enough”?

One possible solution for improving trust and psychological safety is to gather employees at least once or twice a year at an offsite event. During these events, quality circle participants can meet in person and conduct at least one quality circle session together. Solving problems together in person unites people and helps everyone see that there is nothing to be afraid of.

Another aspect of productive quality circle meetings in remote environments is ensuring participants can see each other. When people volunteer to join the circles, make sure they understand that during video calls, both the camera and microphone need to be turned on. People usually engage better when they can see each other. However, there is significant research indicating that video calls with cameras enabled can increase fatigue and tiredness among participants. This is because video calls require more focus. As mentioned earlier, quality circles are only efficient when participants have enough energy and willpower to fully engage. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that participants are not overloaded with work and have sufficient time and energy to participate effectively.

Quality circles won’t work for every situation

Any tool or practice should be used precisely where and when needed, and quality circles are no exception to this rule. They are not a good fit for every company. If your company culture relies on a direct chain of command, with practices like “disagree but commit” or a heavy focus on OKRs/KPIs, implementing quality circles will yield little or no results. For example, when developers have KPIs on the number of features they develop, they will not volunteer to participate in quality circles since this participation will add more work with no reward. If they are forced to participate, they will find the simplest problems to fix. If they are then forced to solve some given complex problems, they will solve them in the easiest way, which might not be optimal at all. Incentivization usually brings unintended consequences.

Before creating a quality circle, discuss with the managers and ask them how they feel about an experimental quality circle initiative where their employees would spend at least one full working day each month attempting to improve quality, possibly even outside of their department. If the managers are not supportive of this proposal, do not initiate quality circles. There are various reasons why quality circles might not work as intended, but an overload of work is one of the strongest predictors of failure. If managers cannot easily allocate their employees’ time to an activity that will yield long-term benefits for the entire company, it usually indicates that both managers and their employees are already overloaded with work.

If you have full management support for the quality circle initiative, it is best to start with a physical gathering for the group before transitioning to remote sessions. Ensure that all participatory expenses for the volunteers are covered, so they remain motivated to engage and participate.

Quality circles can improve products and improve relationships

Quality Circles are small, voluntary groups of employees who regularly meet to identify, analyze, and solve work-related problems, significantly contributing to TQM. 

Effective quality circles require a balance between structured meetings and voluntary participation, fostering a collaborative and positive work environment. By prioritizing quality across all stages — from understanding user needs to development and maintenance — organizations can harness quality circles to enhance productivity, employee satisfaction, and overall quality, ultimately leading to sustained business success.

You've successfully subscribed to Qase Blog
Great! Next, complete checkout to get full access to all premium content.
Error! Could not sign up. invalid link.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Error! Could not sign in. Please try again.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Error! Stripe checkout failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Error! Billing info update failed.