Keys to Quality Iimprovement

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By Jim Henderson

A company must have a strong internal organization to ensure performance excellence for customers who expect world-class service.

Quality in the contract manufacturing (CM) industry, especially mid-size and smaller firms, is often synonymous with product quality. Sometimes called "inspecting quality into a product," this limited definition and practice is only part of the kind of true, continuous improvement that can be inculcated in a company. World-class quality demands performance excellence from all personnel, from shipping and assembly to administrative, engineering and executive staff.

The overall performance of a company is critical for its growth and survival. It is therefore important to emphasize quality throughout the company from administrative to engineering, manufacturing and shipping as the cornerstone of successful performance. Customers provide the other element of the win-win equation. They receive the benefit and grade the performance via satisfaction.

The foundation of a quality program is the desire for change, and with the goal of performance excellence in mind, a successful program provides continuous feedback, resulting in continuous improvement. The process involves visualization and understanding that, when integrated, helps everyone create new ways of working together to achieve world-class quality.

A model for a system of performance excellence via quality has been developed that expands the definition to encompass all processes within any facility of a multi-site company. The effort involves all personnel and transforms all tasks performed. This model starts with continuous improvement and progresses through eight steps to support a program focused on customer satisfaction (Figure 1).

69287-th_67491.gifFigure 1. A performance excellence system model.

Continuous ImprovementLeadership controls quality. Commitment to a continuous improvement philosophy, coupled with direct involvement by the site's top management in implementing strategic elements for improvement, are essential for a transformation that results in rapid and permanent improvements.

A structured approach to continuous improvement is necessary. Structure provides a framework for training programs and allows for mastery of the process by repetition. This structured approach must be equally deployed in all functional areas of the organization by the formation of teams in each area.

Improvement teams focus on reducing errors, waste, cycle time, duplication and rework. They are generally either natural work groups (a group of people that already work together in the same area or function), or cross-functional work groups. Natural work groups focus on projects within their functional area, while cross-functional teams focus on opportunities requiring resources from multiple departments. In either scenario, teams are coached through an 11-step continuous improvement process by a manager, a member of the site leadership team or by the quality steering team (QST). The QST is a small, high-management level, cross-functional group that performs periodic reviews of the entire quality system and makes and changes company policies that affect quality. The 11 steps are:

1. Identify the opportunity.2. Analyze the issues and study the current situation.3. Isolate the cause.4. Generate potential solutions.5. Select a solution and controls.6. Plan for implementation.7. Implement the solution and controls.8. Measure and evaluate the results.9. Institutionalize the change.10. Share the results and celebrate the success.11. Repeat the improvement process.

All team members are trained in basic improvement tools that include problem solving, root-cause analysis, Pareto analysis, cause-and-effect diagrams, histograms, scatter diagrams and brainstorming techniques. Because of the standardized training, all team members are able to participate in other cross-functional work teams.

Participation in continuous improvement activities increases with time as improvement opportunities are identified across all areas of the company. Eventually, most, if not all, employees are expected to participate. The participation feeds on itself because people begin to recognize the ability to make positive changes by using the program. This empowerment is also facilitated by a rigorous education program, recognition for team members' efforts, and a change in leadership style from being a manager to being a coach and counselor.

Some employees are trained in Six Sigma "green belt" and "black belt" programs using more advanced improvement tools, including statistical process control (SPC), design of experiments, failure mode analysis and lean manufacturing techniques. More complex opportunities for improvement are targeted by the quality steering team and directed to individuals with this advanced training and skill set.

Team building exercises, especially for cross-functional improvement teams, provide a common base from which to work. The focus of the exercises is to identify personality types of each team member and postively accentuate the need for each type. Understanding individuals' different thought-processes and ensuring a diversity presence has proven effective in jump-starting improvement projects.

Measurements and TargetsMeasurement of all company performance areas is critical. Appropriate measurements of financial performance and customer satisfaction drivers, such as quality and delivery, provide the "you are here" milestone on the roadmap to continuous improvement.

Even more important than performance measurement are actions driven by the measurements. A methodology called "four-up" charts provides procedures for ensuring action is being taken to improve the process under measurement and to formally ensure customer satisfaction.

Four-ups contain four elements: a time-based measurement of the attribute of interest including a goal line; a Pareto chart of causes for not meeting the goal; a list of action items targeted at the leading causes (including the name of the responsible party and a due date for completion); and a list of barriers. The four-up tool is used to organize efforts for improvement and provide a clear, concise communication method both internally and with the customer.

A robust system for the collection of quality-related information must be present. An organization must continuously strive to shorten the feedback loop to the process. Deployment of automated data collection systems can get an organization close to real-time information sharing. Improvement of any given process is highly dependent on the capability and resolution of the data collection process used to measure its parameters or output. Clear understanding of pass/fail criteria is necessary to limit false failure calls.

Quality data are most useful if they can be easily "sliced and diced" by time frame, customer, product family, work order, assembly number, reference designator and even process steps. Drilling down from the top defect for the entire operation to the component and process step where most of that defect happens is a significant tool for improving overall quality levels.

Asynchronous Process ManufacturingThe deployment of asynchronous process manufacturing (APM) facilitates cycle-time reduction and process velocity. APM includes many principles of lean manufacturing programs. Redundant equipment capabilities, a flexible workforce training plan, off-line setup and tear down, sophisticated information systems, and small lot size just-in-time (JIT) material strategies are the five basic APM focus areas.

One of the most difficult, yet lucrative, ways to improve product quality is to implement a strategy for tying manufacturing and test engineering resources closely to the product design loop. At the very least, equipment-related constraints should be communicated to the people performing the design. In most cases, implementing design for manufacturing/test (DFM/DFT) rules in designs not only produces double-digit percentage reductions in production cost, but also helps ensure higher conformance to product quality standards.

Education and TrainingOrganizations must institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement. Employees are the most valuable resource a company has and education is an investment. Comprehensive training must be planned and budgeted as a high priority. To maximize effectiveness, these plans need to start with and include organizational leaders. Training programs need to be developed that focus on more than just product quality and should include the following:

  • Personal Skills
  • Leadership/management/supervisory skills
  • Communication and listening
  • Team building
  • Time management
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Conflict resolution
  • Project management tools
  • Basic grammar and mathematics
  • Basic business knowledge.
  • Technical Skills
  • Workmanship standards
  • Computer/software application literacy
  • Material management/flow concepts
  • Quality systems (e.g., ISO 9000, company quality policies)
  • Problem solving skills
  • SPC and other advanced quality tools.

LeadershipThe key to performance excellence development and implementation lies with the organizational leadership. These leaders must fully understand the concepts, philosophy, requirements, benefits and pitfalls of strategies for reaching true performance excellence. Only a high level of understanding and involvement by the organization's leadership will enable them to steer the company through the needed changes.

Leadership must set and clearly communicate the vision to the entire organization. Along with the vision, a clear deployment strategy, accountability program, and incentive or reward system should be communicated. Once communicated, leadership must make sure all of these initiatives stay on course according to the plan. Any letdown by leadership will be perceived by the rest of the organization as reduced program importance.

Process ManagementProcess repeatability is key to product quality. The use of automation wherever possible is a way to institutionalize repeatability. For manual operations, documentation, training and feedback are paramount. If personnel have appropriate reference materials, are fully trained, and are given timely performance feedback, repeatability is within reach.

Illustrated instructions for all process steps should include color-coded graphics and text notes for assemblers as quick and easily understood references. Careful consideration should be given to takt time (calculated target of work content time for a person or machine) when designing workflow and assigning work content inside any given production step. Balancing work content between processing steps has a major positive impact on manufacturing lead times.

Feedback in the form of control charts can give operators a cue to stop the line and act before customer requirements are not fully met. In addition, training on the use of pertinent documentation, tools and control charts is imperative for success.

Human Resource ManagementWhen it comes to hiring practices, there is no substitute for the horsepower of the entire organization. Development of a formal process for interviewing candidates should be the most important consideration when filling important positions. The key is to offer jobs to those people that best fit organizational needs. The process should include cross-functional input on which skills and experience a successful candidate must possess. This information should be used to craft questions aimed at extracting information from each candidate that speaks specifically to their skill level and amount of specific experience they possess relative to the identified critical attributes. Each candidate should answer the same questions and a rating system that includes weighting by priority should be applied equally to all candidates' answers. The highest rated candidate is the best bet for a long lasting, mutually beneficial employer/employee relationship.

An encouraging, safe, supportive and fair working atmosphere is essential for retaining employees. A high turnover is the worst enemy of continuous organizational improvement. Without a solid baseline of knowledge, organizations can find themselves in continuous retraining mode. This mode does nothing more than supply the competition with trained employees.

Materials ManagementMaterials management processes can make or break a manufacturing organization's ability to meet customer requirements. Robust and repeatable processes that convert the customer's forecasted requirements into the correct inventory of raw materials on the manufacturing floor at the right time are required. The manufacturing process cannot succeed if material-related inputs are not correct. Supplier selection, material quality control, planning, purchasing, and material receiving, stocking and issuing processes are key areas to target for improvement.

ConclusionProduct quality is the natural outcome of performance excellence in all aspects of a manufacturing organization. Leadership that acknowledges the importance of continuous improvement is the catalyst for operational excellence. Hiring the right people, implementing appropriate tools and training, designing material and production processes that meet requirements, and providing timely feedback must be a major focus to produce quality products. An organization that excels operationally will produce a quality product and will be successful in customer satisfaction and profitability.

JIM HENDERSON, director of engineering, EFTC Corp., Northwest Operations, may be contacted at 800 North Brutscher St., Newberg, OR 97132; (503) 554-6251; Fax: (503) 538-7280; E-mail:; Web site:



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