TQM, Continuous Quality Improvement and Quality Circles; a love story

Total Quality Management (TQM) is a philosophy stating all employees are responsible for, and contribute to, a progressive increase in quality of the service or product sold to customers. Rather than a centralized and bureaucratic area of the company to oversee product and services quality, each member of the organization contributes to enhancing the overall quality of operations through continuous process improvement. According to the Economist (Total Quality Management, 2009) TQM is “built on the belief that quality is a matter of conforming to a customer’s requirements.” In his article, “The Eight Elements of TQM” (Padhi, 2010), Dr. Padhi writes, “Total quality is a description of the culture, attitude and organization of a company that strives to provide customers with products and services that satisfy their needs.”

Continuous Quality Improvement from TQM

Continuous quality improvement is the result of an organization implementing TQM, whereby the organization continually undergoes change to improve quality. High quality is achieved by meeting customer requirements, and to meet those requirements feedback is collected and integrated back into internal processes, and is used as a catalyst for change. The components of a typical continuous quality improvement model consist of organizational groups and teams, internal processes, customers and vendors. Continuous quality operates as a perpetual motion machine, where the last step in a process influences the motion of the first step, and the system as a whole is able to adapt and adjust to changing requirements. Continuous quality improvement does not function in a vacuum however, and it’s the efforts, insights and recommendations of the employees and management of the company that make it successful. Continuous quality improvement cannot be automated.

Quality Circles defined

Quality circles are volunteers within the organization who meet regularly to discuss and solve problems affecting the quality of their work. Quality circles consist of 6 to 14 volunteers who collect data and take surveys, and also reflect upon ways to increase efficiency and implement customer requirements into their own work. The purpose of a quality circle is to push decision making to the organizational level at which the people doing the work can implement their own (or other members) recommendations, because they know their work best.

But why do these teams consist of volunteers? Should not management assign and build these circles with what they believe to be the most relevant and effective people?  Using volunteers in a quality circle instills confidence in them that they have a voice, and helps remove inter-office political barriers preventing someone from participating and providing feedback. If a quality circle consisted only of assigned members, each member might feel like they were only doing what they’ve been told. Of course, one of the issues with this concept of volunteer quality improvement groups may be in motivating enough employees to participate. To help alleviate this, TQM managers should highlight the importance of a quality circle to the overall company, and associate volunteering with grasping a leadership opportunity, and potentially receive informal training on the operations of a different department than their own.

The core elements of TQM, as a house

According to (Padhi, 2010) there are eight elements of TQM, each of which directly influence continuous quality improvement activities. These eight elements are grouped into functional parts of an imaginary building, with a “foundation”, “bricks”, “binding mortar” and “roof”. This image of a building represents an organizations implementation of TQM and allegorically specifies the requirements for successful and realistic continuous quality improvement.

The TQM building’s “foundation” materials are ethics, integrity, and trust, indicating these are necessary for all other elements to function. Without them TQM is incomplete and if they are not fully implemented, TQM can adversely affect an organizations quality. Ethics and integrity influence decisions made by employees and management affecting the rest of the company and its partners and customers. High quality delivery of services or products are not sustainable if the persons involved are acting unethically, and this negativity can have a cascading effect on those who may be trying to act with good ethics and integrity. If there is little or no trust amongst the employees of a company, communication will break down and mistakes will continue uncorrected.

Next is the building’s “bricks” which are training, teamwork, quality improvement teams, and leadership. They represent human resource activities and organizational groups used to reach the “roof” of recognition. Bricks grouped together create a cohesive and orderly business unit, where each employee is given training to be highly productive, they work together as a team to receive quicker and better solutions to problems, and they form quality improvement teams to deal with specific broader problems. Bricks also comprise of leadership, the single most important element of TQM. Supervisors must lead their employees to practice TQM and must understand, believe in and demonstrate their understanding and commitment through their daily practices. TQM is a top down philosophy where continuous improvement is demonstrated by leaders. Without solid leadership, the values within TQM become much less important to the employees and run the risk of being generally ignored.

Next is the “binding mortar”, communication. This is the most appropriate analogy in the entire example, as without binding mortar bricks fall apart, and without solid communication, the employees cannot form effective teams to solve problems. Without solid communication, each person in the organization becomes an island uncoordinated with others in their efforts to improve quality. In the building analogy (Padhi, 2010) breaks communication down into three sub components, downward, upward and sideways communication. Downward communication comes from supervisors and leaders to make their employees “clear about TQM”. Upward communication then is the feedback from employees received by management in the form of suggestions and the overall efficacy of TQM. Sideways communication is inter department and horizontal to the employee or supervisor and includes vendors and customers.

Last is the “roof” consisting of recognition. The roof analogy is appropriate for recognition because without the roof on a building, the other parts will eventually degrade and crumble, leading to the eventual collapse of the building. When an organization does not recognize the efforts and skills of its workers, the workers become less and less inclined to improve their work. Recognizing the performance of the “bricks” and how quality is improving is extremely important if the quality improvement teams are to keep striving for higher quality. TQM activities require extra work and effort, and without recognition employees will simply fall back to just doing their assigned duties and gradually stop making suggestions. Just as the “roof” requires the foundation and walls are intact, recognition requires the 7 other elements of TQM are in place and functioning correctly, otherwise the recognition could be disregarded by the members of the company as being false and cheap.

TQM, Continuous Quality Improvement and Quality Circles working together

Using the analogy of TQM being the parts of a building illustrates how continuous quality improvement and quality circles fall within TQM. Continuous quality improvement is the result of the “bricks” and “binding mortar” effectively functioning, and it requires people to act ethically and receive recognition for their success. Quality circles are a component of the “bricks”, the self-organizing, and group of volunteers regularly communicating to solve problems and make corrections in their respective processes.

TQM is good for business and society

A successful motto for TQM would be “act with integrity, strive to improve your work and others, and quality will be recognized”. But implementing TQM, much like any other methodology for achieving high quality, comes at a cost. Costs involved with training, incentives, documentation, organizational changes and ensuring values are followed all add up over time. But there is a greater cost to not implementing TQM. The cost of losing customers, strategic partners, and valuable employees far outweigh the comparative nuances of implementing companywide policies.

The values of TQM appear somewhat obvious, almost as if they were carbon copies of what companies have been doing for centuries, rather than being a revolutionary concept devised in the 1950’s. But having a standardized list of policies and procedures helps a company more easily actuate what they already know to be correct. It acts as a roadmap, a charter, a documented agreement for everyone to understand and reflect upon.

TQM is not only about increasing sales revenue through satisfied customers, it’s about worker satisfaction too.  When a product or service is delivered by an employee who is satisfied with his or her company, it positively enhances the customers overall experience, which then positively reflects back to the employee, management and the organization.


Mohrman, E. E. (1985). Quality Circles after the Fad. Harvard Business Review, 67-71.

Padhi, N. (2010, Febrary 26). The Eight Elements of TQM. Retrieved from iSixSigma: http://www.isixsigma.com/methodology/total-quality-management-tqm/eight-elements-tqm/

Thompson, P. C. (1982). Quality Circles: How to Make Them Work in America. New York: AMACOM.

Total Quality Management. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_quality_management

Total Quality Management. (2009, Nov 16). Retrieved from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/14301657