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Measuring Cost of Quality August 29, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Operations, Process engineering, Quality, Supply chain.
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I’ve always thought “cost of quality” was a great idea in principle. If you could take the costs associated with defects, field failures, returns, and warranty claims, and add the costs of inspection, testing, scrap, and rework, then you could get everyone’s attention.

Quality would no longer be some abstract “nice to have” thing, but a real expense category that could be monitored and managed. With an objective, quantitative model to view how much money is actually being spent because of poor quality and associated practices, you would be able to evaluate proposed improvement programs and measure their performance. You would have something concrete to discuss with design and production teams to compare with estimates of future sales and operating expenses, apples to apples. All of this would lead to informed, balanced, and better decisions.

It sounds great, but it’s a lot harder than it sounds. You may be measuring yields and defects and returns, but now you’ve got to measure costs.

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Are You Looking For Root Cause, Or Someone to Blame? August 15, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Operations, Process engineering, Quality.
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When I worked as a quality manager in my first career I was often required to investigate quality failures to determine the cause. There were times when it was pretty easy to figure out, but in an uncontrolled business environment it can be hard to identify a simple dependent relationship between cause and effect. There are usually multiple contributing factors. Sometimes a small thing (the cause) can become a big thing when it’s overlooked (another cause).

Most of the other managers I worked with didn’t have much patience with the complexities of root cause analysis. They wanted a simple, actionable outcome: this is the cause, and if we eliminate this cause then this problem will never happen again (right?), so let’s eliminate the cause. The people who were impacted by this quality failure want answers, and they want to feel confident that the business has taken decisive and effective action. They don’t want to endure an extended period of uncertainty and exposure to risk while the business figures out what to do in order to prevent re-occurrence.

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3D Printing and the Production Ramp August 8, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Product design, Quality, Supply chain.
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Yes, 3D printing is great. Incredibly intricate designs that have been virtually impossible to fabricate using traditional subtractive or injection molding technology can now be realized. The range of plastics and metallic materials that can be printed continues to grow. The falling prices for commercial printers makes them economically feasible for a variety of applications, including rapid prototyping and on-demand manufacturing of replacement parts for field repairs. The technology will continue to disrupt existing business models and help develop new ones, and I’m following all of this with great interest.

I’m especially interested to see how 3D printing will change traditional manufacturing, particularly for mass production. It’s one thing to build a single product that meets design and performance specifications, but it’s a different challenge to consistently make the quantities of products that are required to satisfy a larger market over an extended period of time at a cost that enables a profit. At some point I expect that established manufacturers will adopt 3D printing as a replacement for current fabrication technologies such as injection molding for some applications, however there are still significant cost and throughput advantages with the older processes.

Here are a couple of considerations:

  • Will the prototype design created using 3D printing still work with the volume production plan? Or, will it have to be re-designed to meet the manufacturer’s requirements and capabilities? A change in the fabrication method means re-visiting the discussion about design for manufacturability.
  • Are the materials used for the 3D printed prototype the same as those that will be used in the final product? What does that mean for functional and reliability testing of the prototype? Are those results still meaningful?

Again, it’s going to be interesting to see how this space develops.

Quality Decisions in Hindsight July 25, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Operations, Organizational dynamics, Process engineering, Product design.
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For the last several years there’s been at least one high-profile case of quality failure that captures the attention of the business press for months at a time. Since late 2015 and early 2016 we’ve been watching to see if air-bag supplier Takata, iconic auto maker Volkswagen, and fast food chain Chipotle will survive their highly-publicized quality missteps. There’s always a lot of apologizing to the public, and a commitment to conduct internal investigations to identify and eliminate the causes of field failures. Senior management and boards of directors scramble to regain the trust of their customers.

I’m not at all surprised by the frequency of these events. What surprises me is that these events don’t happen more often. We should expect to continue to hear about similar catastrophic quality problems from otherwise reputable companies despite all the talk about six sigma and customer satisfaction, and despite all the investments in quality improvement programs. It’s the nature of business.

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Is This The Right Problem To Work On? July 11, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Project management, strategy.
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The ability to prioritize and focus is widely praised as a characteristic of successful business leaders. There are too many things to do, and not enough time or resources to do them all, much less do them all well. Leaders have to make choices, not just to determine how they spend their own time, but how their teams should be spending theirs. This is the definition of opportunity cost: when we consciously choose to do this instead of that, we forgo or at least postpone any benefits or gains that might have been achieved otherwise.

One of the most common choices that we consider in business is between short-term operational goals vs. longer-term strategic change management. Some people talk about the challenges of “building the plane while flying the plane,” or “changing the tires while driving the bus.” Both of these metaphors emphasize the difficulties of keeping the business running and generating revenue under the current model while developing and implementing a new business model or strategic direction.

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When You Neglect Operations February 1, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Operations, Process engineering, Quality.
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A few months ago I heard that one of the companies I used to work for decided to shut down a business unit. I wasn’t surprised, but some people might have been. They had a diversified product line and a hard-working sales force that maintained a high level of demand. Large customers were excited about the new products under development. The supply chain was well-established. What went wrong?

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What Is the Quality Team Responsible For? (Part 2) January 11, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Quality.
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If “everyone is responsible for quality,” then what is the quality team responsible for? This isn’t a trick question. If a team or department (or person) doesn’t have a clear, distinct, and ideally-unique assigned responsibility, then should they continue to exist as a separate entity in the organization? Shouldn’t they be doing something else instead, as part of another team?

Of course many businesses don’t have a separate quality team or department at all, and others have chosen to eliminate the quality department as an independent function. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t care about quality. Some of these businesses would probably argue that they have a greater commitment to quality because those principles and tools are fully integrated into all of their functions and processes. Why should all of the Six Sigma Green Belts and Black Belts be located in one central organization? Why not build local competencies within the functional groups, whether in new product development or marketing or finance?

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What Is the Quality Team Responsible For? (Part 1) January 2, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Quality.
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A few weeks ago I had coffee with a quality manager who’s now the president of our local chapter of the American Society of Quality. I’ve made a couple of presentations at the chapter meetings, and I’m helping to manage their web site, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before they asked me to take a leadership position. I declined. My short answer is that I’m “just too busy,” but of course that just means that I’m not willing to make time for it. To quote Bob Dylan: “I used to care, but things have changed.” More on that later.

The chapter president and I shared war stories about our experiences in quality management. His stories are a little more recent, but the underlying themes are the same, and I suspect quality managers one hundred years from now will be experiencing similar frustrations and telling similar stories. Everybody has stories, but I think the unique issues that quality managers face come down to a few fundamental questions:

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“Dare to Know” Reliability Engineering Podcasts January 12, 2015

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Product design, Quality.
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Over the last several months I’ve been working on a project with my friend and former colleague Fred Schenkelberg on a series of podcasts with thought leaders in the world of reliability engineering. Reliability and quality professionals have a tough job, but they’re not alone. There’s a large and growing community of experienced engineers, managers, authors, and other experts who are available to share their practical expertise and insights. Our Dare to Know interviews provide the opportunity to hear from these leaders and learn about the latest developments in analysis techniques, reliability standards, and business processes.

You can access the interviews at Fred’s Accendo Reliability web site: http://www.fmsreliability.com/accendo/dare-to-know/

Let me know what you think, or if you’re interested in joining us for a future interview.

Can Business Process Variability Be a Good Thing? October 6, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Product design, Quality.
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At least once a month I see an on-line discussion that starts with someone taking the position that companies who focus on operational excellence using six-sigma or lean techniques are doomed because they can’t possibly be innovative at the same time. There seem to be several assumptions in this argument: (1) all companies must innovate in order to compete, (2) innovation in operations management somehow doesn’t count, (3) application of six-sigma or lean in one area of the business means that you can’t innovate elsewhere, and (4) innovation is inherently incompatible with six-sigma or lean. As you can probably guess, I don’t agree with all of those assumptions, and I’ve written about this previously in the context of design and product development processes (see Innovative Design vs. Lean Product Development).

I’d like to explore this a little further. We can quibble about definitions, but let’s assume that six-sigma is about reducing variability and lean is about eliminating waste. In the world of business processes, strict application of these techniques would mean strict adherence to standard processes, measuring the performance of these processes, and continuously improving them by finding and eliminating sources of variability and non-value-added activities. Should lean and six-sigma be universally applied to all business processes? Can some variability and “waste” actually be good for the business?

I think it is. Look, if you care about the result, and you need the result to be predictable and consistent, then you need a process. Innovation, however, isn’t predictable, by definition, and I can’t imagine constraining creativity with a process. If you’re not open to consider different ways of doing things, then you’re not going to be very good at anticipating or responding to disruptive changes in the market or competitive environment. You’ll be constrained by the current process and business model. Continuous improvement is good and necessary, but sometimes you have to throw out the old to make room for something new and better. There are many, many examples of businesses that became irrelevant because they focused entirely on improving a process that proved to be outdated and inflexible. The businesses that thrive are the ones who balance process improvement with process innovation.

Where does process innovation come from? Often it comes from people who are modifying existing processes to meet their needs, perhaps without any authorization. Instead of stamping out variability and enforcing conformity, we should be trying to understand why these changes are being made and why the existing process isn’t working. I’m not saying that we should allow everyone to do whatever they please, but we should recognize that innovation requires experimentation, and that means allowing for differences and variability.

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