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How to Ensure Quality in Your Operations Management

The best way to manage quality is not to make defects in the first place, and this begins with operations management. To do this, companies are finding that they must shift their entire focus away from who’s responsible for defects to how the process is creating defects.

Quality guru W. Edwards Deming once stated, “Workers are responsible for 15 percent of the problems; the system, for the other 85 percent. The system is the responsibility of management.” When Deming said system, he meant process as it’s typically called today. In other words, workers can only perform as well as the process allows them.

Traditional Focus Process Focus
Who? How?
Doing my job Getting things done
Knowing my job Knowing the process
Motivate Removing barriers
Measure the workers Measure the process

The Toyota process improvement methodology (also known as kaizen) and its offspring, including Total Quality Management (TQM) and Six Sigma, are all movements toward improving quality with a process approach. They provide a new way to look at quality and focus on changing the culture of an organization to achieve continuous improvement. Without the cultural changes these concepts propose, companies can’t realize maximum quality improvements.

Kaizen, TQM, and Six Sigma encompass three fundamental principles: a focus on customer satisfaction, participation by everyone across the organization, and an endless quest for continuous improvement and innovation.

Consider the customer

Quality is what the customer says it is. Worse yet, customers’ expectations are always changing. So to define quality, you must know what’s important to your customers and keep updating that knowledge over time.

Automobile customers, for example, vary greatly on the attributes they want a car to have. It’s the rare vehicle that can deliver to all customers on all dimensions, especially when price is an important factor in the purchasing decision. Delivering a product the target customer wants requires a concerted effort among marketing, product design, and operations/production.

All hands on deck

Participation by everyone across the organization is critical to the success of any quality improvement project. Line workers are often the first to recognize process problems that contribute to poor quality. They perform the operations each day and are the best source for identifying and implementing improvements. Maximizing the potential of line workers requires that they’re well trained and educated on the entire process, not just their individual jobs.

Upper-management support is also critical. Implementing quality improvement projects often requires significant time and resources. Management must be willing to suffer potential short-term productivity losses for the sake of long-term improvement.

For example, in many innovative manufacturing facilities, line workers have the power to pull a cord and stop the assembly line if they observe poor quality. This could never occur if management is more concerned with the volume of daily production than the end quality of the products.

Others need to participate as well. Stopping the line frequently requires that employees, including maintenance and supervisors, can be dispatched quickly to the problem area and that they have the training and ability to resolve quality issues quickly so that production can resume.

Stick to the improvement effort

Kaizen, TQM, and Six Sigma all focus on continuous improvement, which is the crux of any successful quality-focused program for two reasons:

  • Quality is much like learning to play a musical instrument. If you give up practicing every day, then you won’t improve anymore, and you’ll actually get worse.

  • Customer expectations tend to increase over time, so quality needs to improve to keep up.

But how do you actually accomplish continuous improvement?

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This is known as the plan-do-study-act cycle, but is also called the Deming wheel or the PDSA cycle. It represents the circular nature of continuous improvement. As you solve one problem, you continue on to the next problem. The process has four steps:

  1. Plan: You must plan for improvement, and the first step is to identify the problem that you need to solve or the process that you need to improve.

    After you identify the problem/process, you need to document it, collect data, and develop a plan for improvement.

  2. Do: You then implement and observe the plan.

    As in Step 1, you should collect data for evaluation.

  3. Study: You need to evaluate the data you collect during Step 2 (the do phase) against the original data you collected from the process to assess how well the plan improved the problem/process.

  4. Act: If the evaluation shows improved results, then you should keep the plan in place (and implement it more widely, if appropriate).

    Then it’s time to identify a new problem and repeat the cycle. On the other hand, if the results aren’t satisfactory, you need to revise the plan and repeat the cycle. Either way, you repeat the cycle!

This PDSA cycle is also the foundation behind the DMAIC method of the Six Sigma process improvement methodology.

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