Thursday, June 28, 2012

Quality Beyond Product

What is Quality? This question has been asked in many ways and in many situations over the years, from the most physical (as in product quality specifications) to the most abstract (à la Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality). It's difficult to find an answer to this seemingly basic idea, even Pirsig declined from defining it even though it was the basis of his worldview.
On a more practical level, we need to not necessarily know how to define Quality as much as we need to know how to apply it in our work lives. Working in the Quality field I know many ways that we apply it everyday, primarily as a way to identify and meet customer expectations. As Paul Borawski mentioned in his blog, however, many people still consider "Quality" to be related only to Quality Control, the decades-old field of inspecting products after they are made. Although this is a critical part of the overall Quality activity in a company it is far from being the only way to implement Quality. In fact, when problems are found in the Quality Control area, it is very late in the process and these problems tend to be much more expensive to fix. A better way is to identify Quality problems further upstream in the process, even upstream from the manufacturing process. One way to do that is to examine our "transactional" or "office" work in the same terms as the manufacturing process. This will help us to find hidden Quality problems in otherwise seemingly normal processes.

One example is the amount of "rework" that occurs when making a product design. Engineers work closely with the customer to design a product that matches the specifications as closely as economically feasible. During this process the design may be passed to the manufacturing and quality groups for feedback. The design can make several rework loops as the other teams give their feedback and the engineers make changes. Few people might consider this "rework" but it is really no different than a product being made in production, problems found in inspection and then reworked. If the three teams sit down together to make the design (as urged by the APQP process) then the rework can be eliminated with huge amounts of time removed (sometimes weeks). I exhorted this thinking during my stint in Japan and was pleased to see the design engineer and quality engineer taking a few hours to sit next to each other at the designer's screen and discuss the 3D and 2D data, making improvements in real-time.

We are so used to using the terms of production in production, let's start to use them in our other work and find much improvement. Quality must move to enforce a mindset of "real-time" improvement and revisions, rather than allowing something, anything, to be passed along that may not be perfect. Such a mindset can really push quality forward in any organization.