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Increase customer satisfaction and reduce your cost at the same time - a win-win situation

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Operations Excellence by Sepp Gmeiner
Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions please email

Implementing a 
pragmatic quality management system
Our woodworking industry faces challenges. The dealers and/or final customers detect quality issues, which lead to added cost for the manufacturer and customer dissatisfaction. Companies can turn this situation around by implementing an effective and pragmatic quality management system. The goal is to prevent quality claims during the manufacturing process. A key element is to drive the system by utilizing Key Performance Measures (KPM). Established systems such as ISO 9000 can be incorporated, but the required administration may distract from the core focus outlined in this article. WOODMARK, which was tailor-made for our industry follows the principals below more closely.

Establish and 
evaluate the 
current situation
Your company may already collect information on quality. Reasons for the current quality claims are already known and composed. Key Performance Measurements might have already been established. The quality control staff probably conducts regular (and not so regular) prescribed tests or measurements on specific check points. The results are already displayed. So far so good.
What I often see when conducting a review of the current situation is that the collected data did not lead to any corrective actions. Initiatives are generally not taken to eliminate re-occurring errors and quality issues. Often it becomes clear that, in general, the employees had very limited quality awareness. ‘The quality is the sole responsibility of the quality department’ is often the underlying opinion on the shop floor. Such systems are not effective, not sustainable and certainly do not conform to the philosophy of a modern approach to quality assurance. 

The new quality 
Together, management and employees define the guiding principle for quality optimization: Everybody, from machine operator, material handler to installer, is responsible for quality. 

Definition of quality
Everybody has a different understanding on what is quality. This is true for all employees in the company. They evaluate what is acceptable and what is causing the quality problem or the rejects differently. In order to have them all ‘sing from the same song sheet,’ a common understanding needs to be developed. Errors and quality criteria need to be named, classified and quantified.
To document the quality and to provide the employees help-tools, limit samples need to be developed. For every identified error, limit samples should define what is acceptable (good=ϑ) and what is not acceptable (bad=Λ). These samples are simply mounted on boards and placed where these quality criteria needed to 
be checked.
Employee participation and the use of Key Performance Measures
The main success factors for a successful quality system are inclusion and participation of all employees and systematic and fast elimination of identified root causes.
Based on the identified root causes, the existing test and inspection methods and tolerances need to be updated and documented in the new inspection protocols. These inspection protocols also become the tool to train new and re-train existing employees. This focus on what is important allows an efficient and effective quality assurance culture change. The regular attention to quality and inspection by trained employees allows short reaction time when deviating from the defined standard.
Meaningful and dependable KPM numbers, derived from the inspection protocols, are the starting point for continues improvement initiatives. Standardized KPMs per department create the needed transparency for employees and management alike. The results need to be displayed in strategic spots within the company. These display walls show the current quality performance, the most critical quality problems and errors, as well as the agreed upon corrective measures (…who is doing what).
Suppliers and external partners need to be included in this process, also. The analysis and evaluation of the inspection protocols allows a qualified and transparent communication with the suppliers (facts instead of opinions). This develops into a common quality understanding between supplier and company, which will result in measurable improvements.
As soon as the KPMs are implemented and reviewed, questions should be raised: What do the KPMs say? What can be done to improve the KPM’s? What are the next steps?
The KPMs and the non-conformance issues are analyzed by using the Pareto principal, (80-20 rule) and results are shown in Pareto charts where useful. These results provide the focus for the quality assurance circle meetings. Establishing fact-based priorities avoids aimless activism, or doing things for the sake of doing them. With focus, results driven optimization solutions can be developed. Additionally the KPMs allow verifying the effectiveness of the implemented improvements. 

Goal focused elimination of root causes
Establish quality circle meetings consisting of workers and management. These teams, consisting of employees from different departments and job-functions, work together to look for root causes and establish corrective actions. The objective is to work together on continuous improvement projects to sustain the achieved quality level and steadily bring further improvements.
These circles are led by the relevant department manager and supported by a member of the quality department. A strict agenda maintains focus and keeps within the anticipated time limits. The team members are mainly made up of shop floor workers from the specific department. As needed, interacting departments like purchasing, production control, engineering, upstream or downstream manufacturing departments are pulled into the meeting.
The purpose of the meeting is to identify root causes and find solutions and not blame and shame the guilty. This must not be a witchhunt.
The character of the meeting leans on the principle of KPMs. The purpose is to provide the teams/employees a platform and tools by which they can solve and eliminate quality problems self-sufficiently and pragmatically. In order to sustain such a system over time it must be simple and easy to maintain.
All established corrective actions developed by the individual teams are collected in the overall corrective action plan. The individual teams review all action items and adjust their own efforts as needed. Visible for everyone, the action plan is posted and updated at the different display walls.
It is not unusual that in the first round of quality meetings one or two-dozen high priority items are identified. To provide traction for the system, management must ensure that the team has the authority, tools and time to implement the changes. The system will die for sure if we add dozens of additional corrective actions in the subsequent meetings, but do not implement what the group had identified earlier.

Verification and control
To verify the system works, the company can establish a product audit. For this, a random order is re-routed after completion to a special inspection area. The product will be inspected by a QC member together with an alternating worker from the manufacturing departments.
If repeating and/or significant errors are detected the problem will be analyzed with the employees of the relevant value chain and corrective actions implemented. This type of audit, especially the full integration of the production workers, increases the quality awareness and changes the company culture. 

Conclusion – 
initial success
The quality circles will identify a large number of errors. Typical errors are (CNC) programming errors, missing information on orders, lack of material when starting a work order, dimensional tolerances, colour and wood grading selection, and so on. With management commitment, a big portion of these errors can be corrected within a few days or weeks. The correction of old, lingering problems has many benefits. It increases the productivity when time-wasters such as program adjustments and waiting for info and material gets eliminated or at least reduced. The bigger impact is that employees soon realize that their input counts and they have the ability to improve their work environment.  It will change the quality culture of the company.These meetings improve the communication between the workers, supervisors, departments, and the front office. In our experience this allows the implementation of many small quality improvements. Most of the implementations needed little planning effort and no major capital investment.
By changing the approach to quality management, the responsibility for quality in the company lies with every individual employee. A focused approach with clear management commitment will show significant, measurable improvements within the first few months. A sustainable drop of 20% of the cost of quality within six to twelve months is possible.
You can easily calculate how this will impact your bottom line!
And we haven’t even talked about what this increase in the level of customer satisfaction will do to your business. 

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