Zero Defects: What Continuous Improvement Means in Your Manufacturing Environment

Steve Wise
By Steve Wise | November 25, 2020
Vice President of Statistical Methods

Fact checked by Stephen O'Reilly

In the first few articles of this blog series about statistical process control (SPC), we discussed ways to reduce waste, scrap, and rework, as well as the top advantages to using SPC in your manufacturing operations. Although the first blog did focus on defects, I’d like to turn that topic on its head a little bit and talk about a catch phrase that I’m hearing quite a bit these days in the manufacturing world: “zero defects.”
“Zero defects” is a wonderful slogan. It points to striving for perfection, something we all do in some shape or form in our everyday lives. Whether it's searching for the perfect mate, or self-improvement, or any number of such things, the journey toward a perfect “thing,” whatever it might be, seems to be part of human nature. It is obviously not an attainable thing, we all know that, but the striving is important. It’s important to make the effort.
In manufacturing that is most certainly the case.
Zero Defects Attainable with SPC

Dr. Deming’s 14 Points

Striving for zero defects immediately brings to my mind the late, great Dr. Deming. My colleague, COO Doug Fair, recently delved deeply into Dr. Deming’s 14 Points for Management in a blog series. I encourage everyone in manufacturing to read Dr. Deming’s work, but this blog series sums it up pretty well. To wit: “by adopting appropriate principles of management, organizations can increase quality and simultaneously reduce costs (by reducing waste, rework, staff attrition, and litigation while increasing customer loyalty). The key is to practice continual improvement and think of manufacturing as a system, not as bits and pieces."
Great advice, if I may say so. I therefore will point to Dr. Deming’s points to begin this discussion of “zero defects,” because he did have something to say about this topic, if tangentially, when he referred to management, leadership, and goals.

Striving for Zero Defects is What Matters Most

Dr. Deming’s point number ten states “Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the workforce.” Which brings us to “zero defects.” It’s a slogan. There’s nothing wrong with the goal of zero defects, but a hollow slogan will get you nowhere. Fast.
Slogans can lead to disillusionment, frustration, and worse, unrest in your employees. Face it, having a carrot perpetually dangled in your face with no means with which to ever reach it is demoralizing, at best. Hollow slogans are those that are unattainable.
I say that with a caveat: if you’re going to use a slogan like “Zero Defects,” you must be prepared to take care of a few things yourself:
  • Be able to show your employees how to achieve the goal (that is, how you plan to “strive” for perfection)
  • Be open; explain to them that the goal is, in fact, unattainable (but striving for it is important), and
  • Explain that you don’t plan to dole out punishment for anyone not meeting this goal (another of Deming’s points: “Drive out fear.” [i.e., don’t use punishment; it doesn’t work]).
Continuous Improvement 

Continuous Quality Improvement

I think the importance of striving for zero defects revolves around this: mindset. You set up a direction in which to focus your employees. For example, if you want to increase sales by three percent every quarter, and you challenge your employees with that, then they start thinking in that direction…all the time. They focus their everyday activities toward achieving that result. Same thing with zero defects. You all know it’s inevitably impossible to attain, but everyone is thinking about it and striving to make it happen.
The ideas that come out of that are important. It’s the difference between continuous improvement and “breakthrough improvement.” Allow me to explain.

Breakthrough Improvement

In the past, I worked with a company that produces bicycles. A major goal in bicycle production is weight. The lighter the better.
This company’s goal of continuous improvement was to always reduce weight. Bit by bit. “Our goal is to reduce the weight by three percent in the next series of bikes. How do we do that? Where can we trim some weight?” Everyone starts thinking in that direction. “Can we make the seat post out of a different material? Will that help? Maybe somehow change the hardware that holds the seat in place? Will that do it?” You can see how employees might collaborate, brainstorm, and come up with incremental changes to the makeup of the bicycle to reduce weight.
So, the company starts to implement those changes and begins to drastically reduce the weight of the bicycle. Challenge accepted; it becomes part of the corporate mindset. It has now become more than a hollow slogan. It is a company mandate. And it’s attainable!
So, they start looking at the bicycle frame itself. The ideas keep coming. Then someone comes along and invents a technique to weld aluminum. Eureka! Bicycles go from steel tubing to aluminum. Weights drop dramatically. That is breakthrough improvement. And, happily, that was taken a step further with the development of carbon fiber. Incremental, then boom! Breakthrough. But everyone has to be thinking in that direction in order for that to take place.
Everyone focuses on continuous improvement. What’s the next thing I can do to shave that weight? Or make this process faster? Or produce more of these in an hour? And the breakthroughs, hopefully, come.
Breakthrough Improvement

Continuous Focus for Your Quality Team

As you focus your employees on a goal like zero defects, you open communication. Your operators are smart people (in many cases “artists,” as Doug mentions in his blog here), and when the competitive juices are flowing all kinds of wonderful things can happen.
I love the idea of operator-artists. Invaluable employees who run the machines that are critical to your operations. Head them all in the right, the same, direction and great things can happen. But it all starts with the data they collect.
As Doug states in his blog, “An operator employs his/her art to get their machine humming and working perfectly. But, when they do their next data collection, and the data indicates something has changed, they know that even though they didn’t hear, smell, or feel anything, they need to adjust/fix their machine. Data provides insights they never would have if relying solely on instinct and artistry. The best operators know that the data they collect expands their knowledge of the machinery and validates their artistry.”
This is important. Data is the key. It’s the driving force to continuously improving the quality of your processes…and your products.
Data is Key

With SPC, Manufacturing Data is King

Whenever we talk about manufacturing quality, we always end up talking about data. When an employee asked Dr. Deming where to start with their quality efforts, he said (and I paraphrase), “Just begin by collecting data. Any data. It will lead you where you need to go.” Just start collecting.
Data is what is going to eventually get you the big picture you need to truly assess the quality of your processes. And the way to get the big picture view is with data aggregation.
Data aggregation is “rolling up data across your manufacturing enterprise and uncovering where the greatest opportunities exist for reducing waste, reducing costs, and improving quality. This is how you get a huge return on your statistical process control (SPC) investment.” This quote is from Doug’s SPC: Hunting the Big Picture and the Big Payoff blog. I cite this because that’s really what we’re shooting for here, right? Making the most of the investment we’ve made in quality, in our SPC system.
The way to do that, to make the most of our investment, is to do some of the things we’ve been talking about: focusing your employees on a goal like “zero defects,” which gets their mindset on incremental improvements—the kind of improvements that can shape the quality of your products.
InfinityQS quality intelligence software empowers manufacturers to control processes and make continuous improvement across their entire operation. “Extract the most from your quality system—that’s the key to saving money, cutting down on scrap and waste, and transforming your organization’s performance.”
Thanks for joining me for this brief discussion of “zero defects.” Next up, we’ll discuss sampling strategies and the many ways in which they can help your organization.
To read other blogs in this series:  
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