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  • Carl Blanz

Quality Circles and Shared Leadership

I can remember being a kid in the 60s and 70s, when “Made in Japan” meant cheap and crappy. It was (in addition to being printed on the bottom of cheap merchandise) a metaphor for things that didn’t have integrity.

In 1950, an American named William Edwards Deming was working with industries in Japan to rebuild their economy after World War II. One of the tools he brought to help in that rebuilding was a quality assurance tool called the Plan-Do-Check-Act process.


The process evolved into a movement called Quality Circles, and the responsibilities evolved to: Decide, Plan, Do, Measure.

By 1960, Japan had literally gone from ashes, to having the second largest economy in the world, and by the 1980s they had shifted their reputation to impeccable quality and innovation, called the Japanese Economic Miracle. Deming is credited with having influenced much of that transformation, largely due to quality circles.

Quality circles are a great framework to think about how to share leadership. The basic premise is that there are four responsibilities to getting work done:

  1. Decide what you want to achieve

  2. Plan how to get the work done

  3. Do the work

  4. Measure the results of the work

After Measure, you cycle back to Decide and repeat.

The transformative energy that the Japanese industry harnessed and forged into the Japanese Economic Miracle turned out to be: Meaning.


Quality circles imparted Meaning into the “Do” part of the cycle, and in turn, reduced mistakes, raised the level of safety, and provided more profit and more well-being for the frontline employees—all at the same time.

Meaning-Making Machines


Each of us makes our own meaning, and for meaning to be made in the doing of tasks, those tasks have to connect to personal desires and a sense of impact/accomplishment.

If you’ve seen any movies or shows about climbing Mount Everest, you know it is uncomfortable, potentially deadly and incredibly challenging. It takes up to a year or more and at least $100K to plan and actually do the climb. If you finally make it to the top, you get about a minute before it’s time to turn around and trek down. Some people complete their climb and on the way down they start planning their next Everest summit.


It’s not the minute at the top that provided the meaning. It’s the process of: Deciding to make the climb, Planning the steps to get there, Doing the climb and Measuring the fulfillment or impact of the entire process. We measure personal fulfillment by reflecting on our initial desire, and we feel a sense of accomplishment if we see that we had an impact on the acquisition of it.


Decide, Plan, Do, Measure: Quality Circles and Shared Leadership…


Today, more people are becoming familiar with the term Shared Leadership. Quality circles are still a part of the manufacturing industry, but due in part to the loss of manufacturing, and some trouble with unions in the US, they unfortunately have not really made it to mainstream America.

It’s possible that shared leadership may be the offspring of quality circles. They look a lot alike.


Collaborating on the Decide, Plan, Do, Measure cycle: A Process for Aligning Personal and Organizational Fulfillment.


In my own career, I have always gravitated to positions of leadership, but an overconfidence in my own abilities has sometimes blinded me to the possibility that others can contribute in ways that I cannot.


Looking back, I believe it was an addiction to the feeling of control that impaired my ability to listen and ultimately surrender to the process of sharing leadership.


It was not until late into my career, (like about 30 years in), that I consistently experienced the power of sharing leadership with others. It was the Mobius Model that provided a roadmap for how to lead by sharing power with everyone, at every level in the organization. Only later in the coaching and facilitating part of my career, did I connect the Decide, Plan, Do, Measure process to the Mobius Model.


Where Does Ownership/Management Fit in This Cycle?


How the smartest and most innovative owners and managers are thinking about shared leadership now includes: creating a shared vision, getting shared commitment, creating and developing teams and a new twist—creating an intentional and clear upside for those who Do.

Owner/Manager’s role in moving towards more shared leadership looks like:

  • Create a shared vision

  • Reach a shared commitment to the vision

  • Develop teams and individuals to author the Decide, Plan, Do and Measure responsibilities

  • Create an upside, for the individuals and teams

Quality Circles and Shared Leadership are an Upside

Dan Airely’s TED talk on a new model for labor, demonstrates that what makes us thrive is the feeling of making ongoing progress and feeling a sense of purpose. Transferring the responsibilities of Decide, Plan and Measure (aka sharing leadership) creates an upside for the people conducting the Doing part of the cycle. The upside is the feeling of accomplishment that only comes when what I do feels meaningful to me.


I’m guessing you have done some version of this, either intentionally, or maybe intuitively. Establishing a quality circle or circles in your organization could be a low-hanging fruit solution to creating an upside for your people. And a great experiment toward sharing more leadership.


The Quality Circle Handbook is a bit dated, but still a great place to get you enough information on how to start a quality circle. In using the book as a guide, I’ve kept some of the original processes and updated others.

Here’s an action you could take:

Before your next meeting with a team, distribute this blog post and ask people to come to the meeting with their ideas about where they can take on the Decide, Plan and Measure activities on something they are already Doing.


During the meeting, you can get clear with them about your own measures and or constraints like cost, time, quality, legal compliance—and, you can measure whether or not you’ve succeeded in creating an upside by sensing the energy of this activity. Think of it as an experiment in sharing leadership together.


Here’s another action:

Think for a minute about the reoccurring complaints you hear from employees. List out the top five complaints.


For each of the complaints, compare the activities and responsibilities of the people who are complaining to the Decide, Plan, Do, Measure cycle.


  • Do they have a say in the goals of the work?

  • Do they get to make their own plans for how the work gets done?

  • Do they have a say in the measurements or goals of the work?

  • Can you see if they are deriving any personal satisfaction from the work?


See if you can identify parts of the cycle that are missing and move towards handing the entire cycle over to the employees. Complaints usually point to some truth or at least part of the truth.


Download the Quality Circle PDF, which we use in guiding the creation of circles.


We can support you in creating Quality Circles and in sharing more leadership in your organization.


#sharedleadership #qualitycircles #management #vision #teams

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