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How Operations Managers Can Focus on Quality to Achieve a Lean Company

Quality is a pillar of any lean organization. Poor quality contributes significantly to the waste that lean companies strive to eliminate. In lean organizations, quality is the responsibility of everyone. Line workers are trained to detect poor quality, identify the causes of poor quality, and implement improvements. The quality process follows these steps:

  1. Detect the abnormality.

    Part of workers’ jobs is to identify poor quality as it occurs.

  2. Stop the process.

    Line employees have the power and are expected to stop the line.

  3. Fix or correct the immediate condition.

    Action is required to put in place a quick fix so that production can resume as quickly as possible.

  4. Investigate the root cause and solve the problem.

    You must implement a permanent solution to replace the quick fix of Step 3.

A radical concept found in truly lean organizations such as Toyota is the ability of workers to stop the production line when a quality issue is identified. The worker pulls an andon cord, which stops the line and sends a signal to an andon board that notifies management and other workers where the problem is.

This ability to stop the line can also be programmed into the equipment itself. Jidoka, sometimes referred to as autonomation, meaning automation with human intelligence, enables a machine to detect when a defect occurs and allows the equipment to stop the line automatically.

For example, if a machine jams, the machine will not only shut itself down but also stop the entire line. The andon board then lights up, signaling for help at the machine. This eliminates the need to have an operator at each machine.

The first priority after you detect a defect is to implement a quick fix so that production can resume. This may involve the addition of another step in the process, such as manual machine adjustments or inspecting parts.

Because the quick fix usually adds some waste into the system, you don’t want it to become permanent. What separates lean organizations from those trying to be lean is a relentless effort to identify the root cause of quality problems and implement permanent solutions. Many companies get lazy, allowing the quick fix to become permanent.

A common excuse for this behavior is that people are too busy with other things, and the fix is working. This firefighting, as it’s often referred to, is what a lean organization is trying to eliminate.

The best way to correct a mistake, of course, is to prevent it from happening in the first place. This is why lean firms embrace poke-yoke, which means “preventing mistakes.” Lean organizations focus on designing a simple process and training workers to function in the process. Always remember to simplify.

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