Quality circles: Squeezing water from a dry towel

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

A FARMER is being recruited to join a local communist group. He appeared before the leader to answer questions about his worthiness.

“If you have two cats, will you give one of them away?”

The farmer replies: “Yes, I will.”

The interview continued. “And if you have two farm lots, will you give one away to your comrades who are in need?”

The farmer said, “Yes.”

“And if you have two houses, will you give one away?”

The farmer continued to affirm positively with a warm smile.

“And if you have two carabaos, will you give one away?”

The farmer hesitated for a moment: “No, I couldn’t do that.”

The communist recruiter probes further: “But, why? I thought you’ve already understood our teachings.”

“We’ll . . . to be honest. I have two carabaos.”

Applying the basic principles and buzzwords and everything in-between are some of the wonderful aspects of our work life that we can’t ignore. But it’s nothing if people can’t understand them and much more if we can’t apply it and reap its monetary and non-monetary value.

Last week, I spent more than two days (totaling about 20 hours) as one of the three practitioner-judges that evaluated the projects of 15 problem-solving teams of a major electronics company in Laguna. It’s a Filipino multinational that we can be proud of as it has a controlling interest in similar factories based in China, Mexico, and Germany.

When you think that nobody cares about the potency of Quality Circles as a dynamic and highly structured way of reducing cost in the process of improving product quality, then you are plain wrong. That means you haven’t experienced squeezing water out of a dry towel.

More importantly, Quality Circles which became a buzzword in the 1980s, after the Japanese used it without fail, are still very much in vogue and valued today. Why not? This electronics giant has earned close to P100 million as a result of the combined efforts of 15 teams, composed of five to seven members each, majority of whom are high school graduates, who worked conscientiously and feverishly in the past five months!

No, the multimillion-peso savings were not massaged because the firm’s accounting department spent time in validating the facts and figures presented before us judges who are all outsiders, disinterested people but bound equally by the power of kaizen (continuous improvement) or Lean Six Sigma or whatever name you call it.

Further, the company benefited also from non-monetary benefits that include increased teamwork among employees, built self-confidence among employees.

I’m telling you this. Quality Circles are not a monopoly of the Japanese, Toyota and the manufacturing sector. People and organizations do it, even by those coming from banking and the business processing sectors, among others.

I’ve yet to hear negative feedback against Quality Circles. Well, of course, it has some harmful effects, but that is if its members simply follow the dictates of the boss or team leader, resulting in a “QC Single” set-up.

After all, Quality Circles or anything close to it is a manifestation of industrial democracy, where everyone’s voice must be heard.

What’s the lesson here? Creating, maintaining, and perpetuating an army of problem-solvers composed of employees, regardless of their job title, makes the greatest impact towards a sustainable organizational growth and profitability. It helps the workers to feel, empathize, and act more to understand that if cost reduction is not done, then it would also adversely affect their job security.

Good things come to people who sweat. But the sweating out must come from the top who must train people on how to use problem-solving tools, the most popular of which include the Fishbone Diagram, Pareto, and Five Whys.

In terms of training versus not training people, it’s easy to conclude that the CEO does not know what he’s doing. He may be suffering from an unexplained bias that all training programs are costly. If you think it that way, call me and I will give it to you for free, if not, we can talk of a results-based consultancy.

If I failed to discover any savings for your organization, then you don’t have to pay me anything. Fair enough? If you think there’s not much to save in your business operations, then you’ve become part of the problem.

Rey Elbo is a consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


Please follow our commenting guidelines.


  1. Elisa, the best way is to create, maintain, and perpetuate an army of problem-solvers. You can’t do it overnight, but slowly you can make daily improvements starting from the top killer expense in your organization. Use the Pareto Diagram to focus on the most important issue (high number of defects etc.). Normally, deviations happen if you lack standards or the proper way of doing things.

  2. ElisaC. Tolentino on

    Hi Sir Rey,

    Thanks for publishing this article. Very timely indeed. Only this afternoon in the office when my boss discussed this thing called “Quality Circles”. You see, we’re encountering lots of process deviations lately and we are at a lost on how to address them one by one. Thank you for your brief introduction.

  3. Yes QCs are good in the company…where I once worked affiliated with a Japanese MNC…to the point where even the arrangment of the chairs in the office is guided by QC ideas only to maximize efficiency (area coverage, airflow, accessability). To the shop floor QC is relevant for the ordinary labor. The Japs has a term for it ..TQM..and the labor has TUCP..and the company is closed.

    • I’m not ready to blame the union for the closure of the company, unless we hear their side. However, per my experience, all management initiatives must be done in partnership with the union. If you don’t treat them as a responsbile partner, then surely, they will try to flex their muscle which could probably lead to conflict.