We have often argued that quality derives from much more than good controls. Ultimately, controls are only one element in a dynamic process that will, if functioning properly, lead to high quality outputs with minimal production interventions.
Just as well functioning societies have laws in place to govern socially acceptable behavior, in the quality world we set standards and critical specifications that will govern a PASS or FAIL in an inspection. Controls are put in place to ensure compliance with the standards identified. If quality personnel are too heavily focused on the controls – on the checks and balances in place to catch problems – a quality control function can quickly lose its effectiveness. Quality control might rapidly turn into what amounts to a police force – checking production runs and samples to identify and sanction manufacturers that are not in compliance with required standards. Why is this a problem?
There is a great example that I have heard told many times of an English executive who is sent to oversee one of their Chinese factories. Upon arriving at the facility, the Chinese plant manager receives the foreigner and takes him immediately to his office. En route, they passed an office that had a leak from a water pipe in the ceiling that was dripping onto a desk and very close to some costly equipment. The foreigner immediately told the Chinese manager that he was putting at risk this expensive equipment and needed to fix the problem at once. Minutes later they pass by the same location and the foreigner notices that they have placed a large piece of plastic over the equipment to keep it from getting wet. The foreigner asked his plant manager whether they had fixed the leak, to which the manager replied – “no, but we fixed the problem – no more risk of damage to the equipment.” Incredulous, the foreigner told the plant manager he needed to stop the leak – this was the risk and problem, and the solution was not a makeshift umbrella. Shortly afterward, the foreign executive noticed that the entire production line had stopped. After some twenty minutes, the executive called his plant manager to find out why the line had stopped. The plant manager told the executive that they turned off the water to stop the leak – but in doing so the line now had no water so they had to stop production.
You can see how controls, while they may identify gaps in acceptable performance or in acceptable results, won’t necessarily correct the underlying problem. To do so, we really need to develop a much deeper relationship – one that involves clear communication, training, and ultimately self-governance.
We have found that the largest investment of time when putting in place effective quality assurance and quality control procedures is in getting our suppliers to self-regulate. We want them to clearly understand what is expected of them and we work with them, throughout the production process, to identify problems early, to contain them, to identify root causes, to take the appropriate corrective actions, and to work on developing new procedures that can be implemented to prevent these sort of problems in the future. This is what we call collaborative quality management.
Our quality control process involves three distinct phases. First, we focus on accountability that starts with clearly communicating all of the requirements to any order we place with our suppliers. The standards, specifications, certifications, and all delivery expectations are clearly documented and reviewed to make sure our manufacturers fully understand our requirements before production begins. Our supplier’s must commit to the viability of these requirements (ensuring that their existing facilities and operations are equipped to handle everything in our contract) but also their willingness to make adjustments as needed in order to correct or prevent problems as they arise. This is a critical first step.
Second, we look to provide our clients with visibility across the supply chain and this starts with implementing good reporting that clearly communicates to our clients the status of all orders, especially when there are problems identified. Our problem / resolution reporting forces our quality control staff to work with manufacturing facilities to identify root causes of problems, and implement a containment, corrective and preventative action plan. Training is offered as needed and all actions are captured in clear reports that give our staff, our suppliers and our clients good visibility as to how production is being managed toward continuous improvement.
Third, we look to optimize compliance resources such that our clients have access not only to reporting ex post, but are active participants ex ante in the quality assurance and control process. By getting the full engagement of client, our team and manufacturers up front, overall quality greatly improves. Alignment of systems, getting good information on sales, returns, end-user feedback and any other input that we can obtain to improve the preventative capabilities of our system are all great enhancers to getting the most value out of a quality management program.