The Quality Trap

The Quality function can be trapped into releasing a problem.  Prevent such, and your business performance will improve.

When we experience defects or “escapes” that reach customers the impulse is to assume that the Quality function is failing to do its job.  That may not be the case.  The Quality function can be trapped into releasing a problem.  Prevent such, and your business performance will improve.

Whether we provide products or services or both, when our customers experience problems, our business suffers.  Therefore, it is in our best interests to ensure that the products and services our customers receive are flawless.  Following that train of thought, if we can ensure that our quality function can and does both proactively promote quality practice and screen out defects, our businesses are better off.

Sources for customer dissatisfaction and product shortcomings or failures often reside outside of the Quality function’s purview.  Consider whether the following describes the realm of responsibility for your own Quality function.

For most product development businesses, the Quality function’s role is to ensure that the products produced and shipped are indeed what the design and development teams said was going to be built.  Quality either screens everything or just a sampling, or may terminate inspections altogether depending on the product or service, customer expectations, and track record.  Does that sound about right?

Well, if the screening process is failing to catch defects or prevent escapes, then yes, the Quality function has some culpability, but the production system should bear the bulk of the stress, since it is the production system that is producing the problems.

Let’s back up our magnifying glass a little further.  What if what we said we were going to build, we built, and it performs to our specifications, but customers still aren’t satisfied?  Well, the Quality function isn’t to blame for that.  It did its job; it verified that what is produced is what we said we would.  It’s the design or the specification that is at fault, not the Quality function.

Of course, there is always the scenario where a Quality function is “rubber stamping” approvals on stuff without really investigating or judging performance or execution.  This certainly is a failure of the Quality function.  Such behavior too, though, has a cause that needs to be addressed.

There are several ways in which a Quality function can find itself in a trap not of its own creation. 

  • The product built or service rendered does not meet customer expectations (this can happen for either consumer products or custom-order products and services).
  • There is no good way of determining if the product or service meets the specification
  • Production track records indicate it is safe and economical to scale back quality screens, then the process degenerates
  • Other functions or functional leaders have the authority to veto or override the Quality function’s assessments or decisions

Fortunately, there are a few very simple things that we can institute to mitigate or eliminate each of the above quality traps.  It is in our best interests to do so, not because someone is whining about the woes of the Quality function, but because attacking the sources of the traps ensures that our products and services are of a high quality and our Quality function will be able to say so.

Let’s talk about the last trap first:

A fundamental flaw of business behavior or organization can make a Quality function all but null-and-void.  If Quality rejects products or components for legitimate reasons, but functional leaders override the decision and direct product to be shipped or components to be used anyway, a whole explosion of quality problems is triggered.  

  • The problem that created the poor quality is likely to persist instead of get fixed. (Even if it is just a documentation error, fix the problem before letting “bad” stuff in or out the door)
  • Customers will receive poor product or services and business will suffer
  • The whole business from the receptionist to the president just received the message that “quality is not important.”  Congratulations, the “rubber-stamping” phenomenon has just been justified.

Above all, do not, under any circumstances, let another functional leader override a legitimate rejection on the part of the Quality function. 

Now for the other traps:

If your business dreams up products or services to offer customers and puts innovative ideas into development and production, then the Marketing team probably leads the development of the specification for what shall be designed and produced.  Hopefully, the engineering team, at least, gets to play a role in the development of the specification.

In this environment there is opportunity to fall into or create more than one quality trap for our business.  First, the specification may not describe a product or service that the customer really wants.  An independent party that participates on the development of the product vision and specification, one that plays devil’s advocate and asks questions like, “how do you know,” or “show me the data,” can help ensure that the specification addresses customer data and not someone’s pet vision.

Train members of the Quality function in Voice-of-the-Customer (VOC) techniques and your business’s innovation methods in order to play that part in the specification development.  Instituting this practice may not be popular with your Marketing function, but it can be effective and it addresses the “rubber stamp” phenomenon to some degree by sending a message that the Quality role has some authority, it isn’t just a back-end “wasteful” process step, and that quality is important to the culture of the business.

The second opportunity to create a quality trap while writing specifications is the verification plan.  If the specified performance cannot be verified and validated, then the Quality function is trapped.  How is it supposed to approve or reject the design or the product or service if it can’t measure it?  If your Quality function isn’t part of the specification process and doesn’t play a role in the writing of the verification plan, then you are missing an opportunity to eliminate a trap and ensure better quality.

Chances are, no one in your business knows better the limitations or capabilities of your tools and methods to measure or otherwise capture performance or defects than your Quality and Test functions.  Make them participate in, if not own, the process of developing the verification plan.  Also, to prevent waste in the form of re-design, don’t let the detailed design process start until the verification plan is established.

If your business renders products or services according to customer-provided specifications, then the same practices will work for you too.  A common and easy way in which we create a quality trap in such environments is that we generate our own test plans or verification plans and design prints, which our Quality functions use to approve our products.  What if our plans and our designs fail to appropriately address the customer’s specification?  That isn’t Quality’s fault.

To prevent the trap, make it Quality’s job to check the test plans and internal specifications against the customer’s product request or specification.  Again, Quality can objectively assess whether the expectations are addressed without the thought process being influenced by what is easier to engineer or cheaper to manufacture.  It also allows Quality to take some control of its own destiny when it’s time to approve the final product.

Once a satisfactory product is developed and in production, we can prevent changes in production performance from creating quality traps by giving the Quality function a part to play in tracking process performance.  I don’t advocate making Quality responsible for collecting and analyzing process data.  I think that each process should own its own performance through-and-through. 

However, if Quality is expected to review and follow the performance data and ask questions, it becomes a way for Quality to provide peer pressure for the process teams to keep up the practice and pay attention to what the data indicates.  It also gives the Quality function some forewarning when something begins to shift without expecting a process team to tattle on itself. 

Finally, make it the purview of the Quality team to audit the data collection and analysis methods.  When pressured to do things faster and with less cost, production teams will be tempted or driven to streamline data processes if no one is paying attention anyway.  Let the Quality function both pay attention and advocate better data and analysis practices.

With the suggestion that we expand the Quality function’s role to include the above activities we must address some challenges that come with the territory.  We must address the skill set and manpower of the Quality function, and we must draw a clear line around just how much advice or dictation the Quality personnel are allowed to insert.

If your existing Quality function is lean and low budget it may be staffed with personnel skilled at reading prints and operating measurement equipment, but not with personnel skilled at negotiating or writing specifications or analyzing data.  If your Quality function does have personnel with an engineering background or a more diverse set of quality-related skills, those personnel might be delighted to have the role expand beyond just verifying prints and measurement results.  One way to make skill-set adjustments without changing headcount is to create a rotation where design engineers and industrial engineers play periodic roles or possess on-demand responsibility within the Quality function.

Now, as our Quality personnel begin to play roles in up-front specification activities or on-going production activities, we need to provide some guidance.  We should allow our Quality representatives to reject a bogus verification plan, or raise alarms concerning production data.  We should not let our Quality representatives dictate the design or engineer the process.

The touchiest part to manage, which must be done according to what is appropriate behavior and responsibility with each business’s own culture, is to address the necessity to update or innovate the verification, test, and measurement capabilities of the business or Quality group when discussing the specifications and verification plan for an innovative design.  We cannot let innovation be stifled by rejected verification plans because current capabilities won’t do the job.

By all means, expand Quality’s role into the various up-front and in-process activities, but make it clear at the same time, that if innovation is the name of the game for the rest of the business, it is also expected of the Quality function.  Sometimes, innovations in measurement and test can even lead to improvements in specifications and design because of the capabilities that can be freed up.

Take some time this week and consider whether the suggestions above might eliminate some of the quality problems that your business experiences or has experienced recently.  The next time someone points a finger of blame at the Quality function, take a moment to consider if the root source of the failure really had anything to do with Quality’s realm of responsibility.  Identify the gap to your teams and your leaders and begin making changes.

By eliminating the opportunities for Quality to be blamed or caught off guard, we make our business better overall at producing quality solutions for customers.  By giving Quality a role to play in the entire design, development, and production process, we enable proactive quality assurance and production with our Quality function, instead of just defect screening and tail-end approvals or rejections. 

Avoid the traps, and business will improve.

Stay wise, friends.