Beware The Check-Box Mentality (Quality Insider)

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by Douglas C. Fair

December 2006

In general, quality registrations provide an extremely helpful means of guiding companies in the creation and implementation of important quality systems. Regardless of their good intentions, quality certifications can sometimes inspire this check-box mentality. The list of certification items is lengthy, so once an item such as SPC is completed, it sometimes receives little sustaining support. Let me be clear: This lack of support is not the failure of the quality system certification itself. Rather, it is the failure of the company to properly support SPC. When SPC is treated as just another item on the to-do list, the result is a lack of emphasis on statistical methods, their benefits and cost savings.

Some critics might say that because I'm a statistician, I'm biased toward specifically discussing the statistical methods portion of registration systems. I am biased, and for good reasons, millions of them, actually.

In my position, I have the privilege of witnessing a multitude of successful SPC initiatives first hand. Some of them have resulted in tens of millions of hard dollar savings. So when I see SPC being treated as an item on a to-do list, I get a bit riled up. So forgive me, here comes my rant.

The following scenario is familiar. A company installs an SPC system, is excited for a month and then quickly forgets about the system, which receives little or no attention beyond the initial setup. In essence the organization says, "OK, we got SPC going, now what's next on the list?" Data collection occurs and control charts are made on the shop floor. Once data points age and fall off the chart, they're forgotten. The data never land on a management report. Plot points sit quietly in a database, which does double duty as data repository and high-tech graveyard.

In other words, data remain data. They're not turned into intelligence that is actionable by managers and quality specialists. While an operator's role in using SPC is to control local processes, my experience has been that the most significant dollar savings are found by evaluating data on a larger scale. Evaluating data across processes and across the value chain is where the real savings lie. But these higher-level analyses are the responsibility of quality professionals, engineers and managers—not operators.

Regrettably, I sometimes see those same higher-level people walk to the shop floor and dust off a couple of neglected control charts when a customer or auditor shows up. "Sure, we have SPC!" they exclaim. "Can't you see our control charts?" They're trotted out solely as a means of demonstrating that the SPC box has been checked. All the while, operators roll their eyes and chuckle in the background. They know the truth, and so do I.

The truth is that collecting data and checking the SPC box is just not good enough. The mere existence of a control chart doesn't equate to sustained, significant process improvement.

So what should be done? First of all, SPC shouldn't be used solely by operators. The biggest improvements and cost savings that I have seen are typically found by evaluating statistical data from a higher level, that is, comparing performance between processes, parts, shifts, lots, etc., to find the next biggest opportunities for reducing costs and minimizing waste.

In essence, SPC should be used at the shop floor level, and also from a higher level. By doing so, operations can determine the best way of running the manufacturing processes as a whole for maximizing quality and minimizing the resources needed to do so.

How do you nurture an SPC system to be the kind of cost saving, variability-reducing, problem-solving tool it was meant to be? The following items are a good start to solidifying your quality certification system and leveraging your SPC system.

  1. Management reports. You need to get managers' attention? Educate them in statistical methods, give them reports, and then sit back and wait for the avalanche of questions. I never cease to be amazed at how managers with but a rudimentary understanding of statistical tools can't help but get involved. Reports don't have to be fancy. A simple color-coded dashboard of Cpk values will get managers talking. The information that is provided to them, in almost all instances, motivates them to focus on quality issues. Sometimes this is a rude awakening for managers—they discover that all isn't rosy on the shop floor. I've seen managers become absolutely hooked on SPC information by using some simple management reports. Why? Because there's an amazing amount of valuable information in the simplest statistical tools. SPC is valuable to managers because this kind of quality information is many times actionable in the short-term. Therefore, improvements and cost reductions are possible in the short-term as well. What manager doesn't like that? And for those managers whose wallets are affected by their ability to reduce costs and meet challenging budgetary goals, quality information can be an immense help.
  2. Purchase and use SPC software. Do you want to make SPC a systemic, commonly used tool? Then make the data accessible and allow the reports to be easily created with SPC software. Yes, I work for an SPC software company, so I guess you could call me biased. Of course I am—I admitted it a few paragraphs earlier. My work has confirmed how an SPC software package is a vital part of quality certification:
    1. It makes SPC very visible. SPC use on the shop floor is hard to miss. And when neglected, it gets people's attention because of the potential loss of the investment dollars.
    2. It easily creates high-level statistical charts and comparative analyses. These charts are critical to identifying large-scale improvements and dramatic cost reductions.
    3. Its purchase makes managers expect a return on their investment. Expecting a return on investment is actually a good thing. Nothing begs for payback like a capital investment. I know of one wood products company whose SPC use was so successful that the return on investment was calculated as just a few days. Yes, days. At that plant, SPC became synonymous with profitability. This facility easily made the case for SPC software purchases in their other plants. Because of their amazing results, plant managers quickly found that they adored SPC.
  3. Quality meetings. If quality is important, then management and support staff must collectively discuss it. The most effective quality meetings I have encountered have been daily, early morning meetings whose focus centered on the interpretation of SPC-specific reports. One such successful example included managers, quality personnel, engineers and shift leaders from a large food and beverage company. Every morning at 7 a.m. they met to go over the previous 24 hour's quality information. They even got their information technology expert involved so that alarms, downtime and critical SPC data was automatically loaded into a software presentation which was available at the click of a button. Everyone left the 30-minute meeting with knowledge of where to focus quality efforts and what processes needed attention. I have seen this type of morning meeting at many different companies, and it seems to be a wonderful way of focusing the organization collectively on quality issues and addressing short-term process improvements.
  4. SPC champion. Every worthwhile initiative has a champion. The same is true with SPC. The SPC champion is a person who easily can talk statistics and is as comfortable working with management as he is shop-floor operators. The champion is someone who knows SPC and can answer statistical questions that always come up in daily meetings. It's the same person who can be relied upon to help SPC software and data collection equipment to work properly. This person makes certain that SPC is used effectively within manufacturing operations and between different ranks of employees. The champion makes certain that SPC isn't used as simply a way to check off the certification box. I know many of you will say, "Yes, but we just can't afford to hire a champion." While that may be true now, the first time SPC uncovers hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings, or saves one of your company's contracts, the SPC champion will be seen for what she or he truly is: an investment, not an expense.

No one even thinks about challenging the efficacy of accounting departments, and the same should be true about SPC. But the only way to get there is make SPC not only useful, but systemic and necessary. SPC should be viewed as essential—like eating or breathing. That's what the four points above are about—entwining SPC into the fabric of your operations. Using quality system certifications such as ISO 9000:2000 is an excellent means of beginning to use statistical methods, but don't just check the box on SPC. Make SPC a part of doing business and you will be surprised at the millions of reasons you uncover for doing so.

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