What is quality? Ask different people within your organization and for every person you ask, you will probably get a different answer. So how do most companies make sure they have the right answer to what is quality? They set up a quality department along with other departments that operate in silos. The quality department will have policies, procedures and protocols with specific accept/reject criteria that leave no room for judgment or subjectivity. This binary approach gives the appearance that only quality product will be made and shipped to customers. In theory, this approach assures that if a process is consistently followed, you will yield the same results each time and ensure that you are able to meet your customer’s quality requirements every time.

Of course, for this approach to work, one would have to assume the customer’s requirements are black and white and all documented specifications are the customer’s absolute criteria for a quality product. In reality, quality is rarely black and white and the documented specifications are only part of the picture. Often the documented specifications don’t provide all the criteria necessary for making sure a part reliably functions as intended. Often one may discover many undocumented requirements that matter to the customer. So, what happens when you encounter some unpredictable variation somewhere in the molding process and the results don’t meet the customer’s requirements or are different than expected? How do we compensate for this? Do you throw the baby out with the bath water and start over? Before you do that, ask yourselves two questions:

  • Does the variance from the documented specifications affect the product’s form fit or function?
  • Will it be ok to modify the process in order to yield the required results?

As simple as these questions sound you will seldom find anyone within an organization with the proper authority and courage willing to answer them. It is often perceived as safer to leave out using any subjectivity or judgment.

There are a few reasons this happens:

  • Quality should not be biased toward production or profit at the expense of customer quality requirements.
  • Production leaders are fearful of making decisions that may have unintended consequences if they decide to alter a process without following a proper protocol.
  • In regulated industries, customer specifications are often non-negotiable.

As a result, even the simplest problems that could otherwise be quickly resolved can end up in a stalemate. This hurts everyone and is simply bad for business.

Compliance Driven or Quality Driven

When quality is set up to operate in a silo, it is more often compliance driven rather than quality driven. It tends to act and serve more like a police department for the company rather than the conscience guiding the company to success. Complying to a certain standard is a great way to ensure consistent quality but many times, the focus on compliance creates a barrier to getting customer’s what they need, by setting up some unrealistic requirements that have little or nothing to do with the form, fit or function of the part. When individuals are conditioned to deliver binary decisions, such that there are no shades of grey, they can sometimes lose the ability to tell the difference between a misdemeanor or a felony and they end up focusing more on compliance rather than the product itself. Every finding that fails to meet the customer’s requirements is treated as a serious crime, even if ultimately the customer would accept the product with the “discrepancy”.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

To make quality a culture rather than a department, what we need to do is rethink the way we structure our organization. Departments create silos of people working with sometimes conflicting agendas and competing for attention. Think about how a sales team, quality department and production or purchasing department might have conflicting agendas. Most companies are structured with departments, titles and org charts that tend to leave people feeling alienated within a company as this method only supports egos and makes individuals feel superior or inferior to others. Everyone in a company should have the same goal. Make product that the customer can accept and is willing to pay for. With that said, a cross-functional team approach would be the first step in aligning everyone toward that common goal.

Rather than creating an organization chart with departments and titles, all employees should be grouped into teams. Not teams to compete with each other but teams to cover all the necessary functions the business needs to operate. For example, a customer management team might be responsible for all communication with customers and comprised of individuals capable of communicating with the customer at a technical, personal and professional level as well as able to negotiate pricing and terms on new orders that create a triple crown win for the customer, the company and the team responsible for delivering the product. A production team might be responsible for ensuring quality product, gets made and shipped on time. This team would be comprised of subject matter experts on quality, manufacturing methods, logistics, material procurement, planning and scheduling. A manufacturing team might be compromised of shift leaders, trainers, machine set-up technicians, machine operators and inspection experts.

Decision making

At each level of the organization in which decisions need to be made, there will be a team of subject matter experts where everyone’s input can be heard. After gathering all the facts and weighing the risks and opportunities, a calculated decision can be made with justification. Not everyone has to agree with the final decision but everyone will know what is expected to be accomplished regardless of the outcome. Sometimes tough decisions will have to be made where there is no solution that will ensure the outcome you want but at least everyone will be on the same page. This will allow the entire company to speak in a common voice and communicate much more effectively with the customer.

Comment below on the challenges you face trying to integrate quality throughout your organization and supply chain.