Le modèle-type utilisé pour guider le fonctionnement des cercles de qualité n'a pas le caractère général que cherche à lui attribuer la documentation sur cette forme de gestion participative dans l'entreprise. En précisant, à l'aide d'une étude de cas, que ce modèle-type correspond à une étape spécifique (en l'occurrence l'implantation et les premiers mois) du développement de la formule, cette recherche fait ressortir sa portée limitative pour orienter le fonctionnement des cercles de qualité, une fois franchie la période immédiate consécutive à leur création.
What mainly emerges from the literature on quality circles are guidelines showing how the latter can be implemented, and how they can be kept running smoothly. These guidelines are based on the implicit hypothesis that if the recommended methods are used, the quality circle will be successful.
The numerous experiments conducted on quality circles have revealed to what extent this approach is idealistic. In fact, many circles were observed to function poorly and a rather high proportion (between a third and a half) were dissolved soon after their formation. A new approach emerged out of this which consisted this time in identifying the cause of fallure. Even though the importance of internal and external factors affecting quality circles was considered, the workshop continued to be ignored.
Little attention was paid at the workshop level to outside factors affecting quality circles and this can be attributed to the model favoured by the two approaches in describing the implementation of quality improvement. In this model, it is those who adhere to the circle, that is the members, who deal with the three main tasks: the identification and selection of problems; problem analysis; and the development of a solution. The process ends with the presentation of solutions to management.
The great weakness of this model, when attempting to understand the real impact of the members' actions, is that is does not take into account the implementation of the proposed solutions. On this particular issue, two approaches can be found in the literature. The first totally ignores this dimension by considering the presentation of solutions to management as the final stage of the process. In this case, it can be thought that applying solutions is implicitly a managerial function, as understood by the classical theory that the solutions, once accepted, will be implemented by virtue of the hierarchical authority of management. The second approach also consists in considering the presentation of solutions to management as the ultimate stage in the members' activities. However, as noted by Don Dewar, it explicitly defines the implementation of solutions as a managerial responsibility which, although falling under their authority, constitutes a highly uncertain operation.
Objective of the Article
The main objective of this article is to point out with the use of a case study conducted at the Montreal branch of Canadian General Electric, the limits of the model currently used to guide the way a quality circle should operate. The case under study reveals two main characteristics: a minority of workers in the workshop are members of a quality circle; and the workers have a high level of control on the performance of their tasks. It shows that, to be effective, the members must operate their quality circle differently from the model predominantly described in the literature.
The Case Under Study: A Workshop Within an Appliance Company
Only seven of the thirty-five employees in the workshop are members of the quality circle created four years ago. This workshop, whose main task is wire assembling, is divided into four sections and the organization of the work can be characterized in the following two ways:
a) the third section plays a dominant role in the improvement of quality. The 20 workers in this section assemble the wires produced by the preceding sections and they are the focus of quality improvement because, as opposed to the preceding sections, the mistakes made hère are not detected in the workshop but only once on the assembly line, at the electronic quality control. Furthermore, at the time of our study in the workshop, four years after the creation of the circle, this same third section was identified as the one responsible for the greatest number of mistakes, thus bringing it to the forefront of the quality improvement objective.
b) The second characteristic is the attention devoted to the work itself as an essential prerequisite to quality improvement. In all sections, but mostly in the third, quality improvement requires extensive personal cooperation from the workers, so that they can bring the greatest concentration to their work. To better understand the actions of the members of the quality circle in this context, it should be noted that none of the members, except two recent ones, work in this important third section. Since the workers have a great degree of control over the performance of their work, members of the quality circle adopted the strategy of making their non-member co-workers aware of their actions, first in order to stir their interest, and ultimately to gain their active participation in the three main activites of the circle. This strategy, which lasted two years, consisted in progressively involving the non-members in the activities of the circle so that, at the end of the studied period, an almost perfect symbiosis was achieved. The relationship which thus developped between members and non-members was so close-knit that, during an interview where he was asked to describe the workings of the quality circle, the foreman summarized the situation in these words: «For me, the quality circle is the whole workshop!»
By attributing an important role to non-members in the activities of the circle, members reduced the uncertainty linked to the implementation of solutions. In the workshop under study, the members' actions aimed to integrate an essential component of a quality improvement process, namely the implementation of the recommended solutions which is ignored in the conventional model used to describe the workings of a quality circle. At the end of the period under study, the way this particular circle operated did not reflect what has so far been proposed as a model. We might even say that the proposed model only sets the basis for a quality circle and covers the first few months of its existence. During this first stage, members learn the internal workings of a collaboration process and they tend to monopolize the activities of the circle.
Sooner or later, however, the search for quality improvement requires the integration of non-members in the process, and thus begins when quality improvement requires direct intervention in the work process. In most work contexts, each worker has a certain amount of control over his work and quality can therefore not be improved without the cooperation of those outside the quality circle. This new analysis of the situation brings more possible explanations to the fallures of quality circles. In addition to the factors already identifîed as a cause of fallure, it is safe to assume that many circles have ceased their activities because they did not succeed in integrating those who opted out. Only with the active participation of non-members in the quality improvement process will a level of quality, otherwise unattainable, be reached.
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