Continuous Improvement: Quality Control Circles in Japanese Industry. – book reviews

Joji Arai

Continuous Improvement: Quality Control Circles in Japanese Industry This book defines, from the Western sociological and organizational view, the concept and pragmatic applications of quality control circle programs prevalent in Japanese industries. The authors approach the subject through extensive research into both Japanese and English publications, as well as through their own surveys and surveys conducted by others.

Many successful cases of Japanese quality control circles have been reported by the Japanese and translated into English, and books are readily available in both English and Japanese for those who want to learn how to administer the program. However, there are not many books that theoretically define the concept of quality control circles in an organizational structure. Undoubtedly, this lack of information has made it difficult for some American scholars and business officials to comprehend the program from a sociotechnical approach. The Japanese were not very helpful, as they simply accepted quality control circles as an empirical phenomenon developed to overcome technical difficulties on the shop floor. However, some Japanese scholars attempted to reconcile their lack of theoretical interest by incorporating quality control circles within the broader concept of “small group activities” and “total quality control”–concepts which needed to be treated under organizational theories.

The authors attempt to interpret the Japanese phenomenon of quality control circle programs within the Western concept of organizational theory, so as to prevent cursory understanding and surreptitious commercialization of the program. To do this, they briefly take readers through the methods the Japanese use to organize quality control circles, explain the relation of the circles to other voluntary and obligatory corporate activities (such as corporate-wide quality control programs and small group activities), examine techniques used in solving problems arising at work stations, and discuss the Japanese definition of quality, which emphasizes customer satisfaction and quality improvement, rather than settling on acceptable quality standards.

The quality control circle programs are explained as a system model within the identifiable macro and micro settings and with various actors, from government to individuals. Also, an attempt was made to identify interactions among hardware, software, and “humanware” (logic of sentiment) to properly place quality control circles within the logical social context.

To prove their points, Lillrank and Kano use the results of a survey they conducted in the highly industrialized Tokyo/Yokohama area. They found that although quality control circles were generally introduced to the United States as a voluntary program, in reality, they were organized along rigid parallel line structure. Performance in quality control circles is not necessarily considered important by senior management, although the majority of top management participates in quality control circles conferences. Participants as well as middle management generally view quality control circle programs as important, but believe the program suffers from lack of leadership and management support.

The authors also found that Japanese corporations have “bottom-up” channels of information flow that parallel the “bottom-down” policy decision-making process. Just as in the United States, the qualifications and enthusiasm of facilitators (kanji) in Japan obviously play a major role in determining the success or failure of quality control circles.

With respect to the obvious contradiction between voluntary participation in quality control circle programs, as asserted, and total participation, as advocated by rules of principles, Lillrank and Kano explain that the decision to participate is not left to individuals, but is made by groups as informal inhouse structures.

In describing the importance of “humanware” in Japanese organizations, theories of American scholars were compared with those of their Japanese counterparts. The general conclusion was that there is a lack of empirical evidence to support the Japanese argument that their organizations are more flexible and their employees are more loyal and satisfied. The authors view Japanese quality control circles as a systematic attempt to manage “humanware.”

The Japanese quality control circles are defined as parallel hybrid organizations coexisting with the rigid formal line structure. They interact under formal rules, but in informal modes.

The fact that Japanese employees are usually willing to accept the limited status of quality control circles as a workshop improvement tool was compared to typical American behavior of asking for more power and compensation based upon quantifiable end results. Lillrank and Kano suggest that the Japanese resort to other parallel systems, such as collective bargaining and joint labor-management consultation systems, for asserting their demand for power and pecuniary compensation.

Continuous Improvement: Quality Control Circles in Japanese Industry was written after exhaustive research into not only Japanese and American publications, but also authoritative textbooks on the business administration and sociological analysis of both Japanese and American management styles, to give quality control circles sociological meaning according to American organizational theory.

Lillrank and Kano state at the outset that this book was not written as a “how to” for corporate managers or from an engineering orientation. It is an academic exercise, and will help acadmicians to understand the quality control circles. The use of their own survey data, as well as other Japanese survey data which have not been released to the United States, show rather interesting aspects of the quality control circles which are contrary to the general American perception. The book is an interesting American attempt, with a touch of Scandinavian flavor, to give the Japanese practice a structured and sociological meaning.

Paul Lillrank and Noriaki Kano. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, Center for Japanese Studies, 1989. 294 pp., bibliography. $13.95, paper.

COPYRIGHT 1990 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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