Zero Defect Quality Control...or Continuous Improvement

“Zero defect quality control”—what do you think of when you hear that phrase? Do you think of “No headaches today?” or “No one screaming at me today?” Or does is it call to mind Lean/Six Sigma? Preventing escapes? Maybe “improvement” in your manufacturing processes in general? Or maybe you think of it in a purely psychological/motivational context—like successfully instilling a culture of reducing defects throughout your operations and getting everyone involved?
Well, I think they’re all part of it. The "zero defects" idea has been around for a while now, and it really takes hold in companies that are willing to take a good, cold, hard look at what they do and how they do it. It requires a company to look at their quality control processes and fix what they can, rather than finding issues in their finished products…when it’s too late.  Or worse, when your customers find the defects and raise…never mind—you know what I mean—and it’s never pretty.
Reach for the Stars - Zero Defects 
In realistic terms, we all know that literal zero defect quality control (what some quality pros call “infinity sigma”) is impossible. It’s just unrealistic. But it still should be something we all strive for in manufacturing. Otherwise, we’re just “settling,” and that’s never a good thing. Speaking of which, do we need to settle for a phrase like “zero defects” when it’s unattainable? Let’s think about it for a moment…

Quality Control: Inspection is Great, BUT…

It’s better to find a problem before the customer does. It’s better to find a defect in a process and fix it, rather than produce poor quality products for a shift, day, or week, and then sell the bad product—and hear about it in Yelp! Or some other critical social media review forum.
Adopting zero defect quality control is a commitment. It means that you commit to no waste existing in a project. No waste! And waste is anything you deem to be “unproductive”—something that does not add value to your product—remember those eight types of waste (DOWNTIME)?
  1. Defects
  2. Overproduction
  3. Waiting
  4. Non-Utilized Talent
  5. Transportation
  6. Inventory
  7. Motion
  8. Extra Processing 
When you eliminate waste, you create a continuous state of improvement. And, to me, that is the crux of the discussion. Improvement. Continuous quality improvement.
You can inspect all you want after the fact, and find things, and report things, but hunting down issues before they become part of the final product is a much smarter way to go. And the way you get to the zero defects state of manufacturing is through steady, continuous, unceasing improvement.
So, don’t get me wrong. You still need to inspect. But I think it’s incorrect to assume that if fewer defects are produced, then less inspection is required. I’ve heard some manufacturers tout that, and I strongly disagree. What you should seek is smarter, more sophisticated, better planned testing and inspection. (How many times have you heard  the phrase “work smarter, not harder” in your life?)  And adopting zero defects—which, as I mentioned, includes a cold, hard look at your processes—can help you uncover exactly where to place your inspections and win the day.

The Nuts and Bolts: Quality Management

According to Philip Crosby in his book, Absolutes of Quality Management, the zero defects theory is based on four basic elements:
  • Zero defect quality control means fulfilling requirements at that point in time
  • Quality control should be integrated into the process from the beginning, rather than solving problems at a later stage
  • Quality control is measured in financial terms
  • Performance should be judged by the accepted standards, as close to perfection as possible
The idea of getting it right the first time really sticks with me. Then you never have to worry about learning about a problem from a customer. “Upstream” is the best.

Quality Control = Money

Every defect represents a hidden cost: inspection time, rework, revenue, wasted material, added labor, and (probably most importantly) customer dissatisfaction. If you can properly identify a defect, then costs can be measured and can provide justification for spending money on steps to improve quality. This is a concrete way to maintain management commitment and ensure that company goals are met.
Quality = Money 
All defects are not equal. Depending on their size and type, defects can have wildly different probabilities of impacting the finished product. Therefore, they will have different monetary values attached to them. But the overarching “quality = money” still rings true. Because, let’s face it, if money is flying out the door (or not coming in the door) because of defects in your products, whether it’s a few dollars or a few thousand (or million) dollars, it’s money. And we can’t let it escape—it’s the point of being in business, right?  Just think for a moment about the impact the 737 Max issue has had with the Boeing Company.  Not only are they spending millions of dollars on correcting an issue, but they are losing millions of dollars in delayed, or lost orders.

Pros and Cons: Zero Defects

The most distinct advantage of reaching a zero-defect level when you’re building products to customer specifications is waste and cost reduction. In this vein, zero defects equates to higher customer satisfaction and improved customer loyalty—which always lead to better sales and profits.
However, it goes without saying that a zero defects goal could lead to a scenario where your team is striving for a perfect process they simply cannot (realistically) ever meet. Therefore, what can happen is that the time and resources you dedicate to reaching zero defects may get twisted, despite your efforts, negatively impact performance, and put a strain on employee motivation, morale, and even satisfaction. Success can help motivate a team, but failures can have the opposite effect.
On the Factory Floor 
In the end, striving for zero defects is what I would consider to be an “admirable objective.” Most companies find that the positives outweigh the negatives. In my mind, the negatives are just things to keep in mind so that you don’t drive yourself, and your employees, crazy. By striving for rigorous (but accepted) standards of defects, organizations can improve their current processes, build better processes, and create an environment of continuous improvement.

Adopting a Zero Defects Mindset

What I take away from the “zero defects” discussion, and I’ve had it many times, is that companies can do just fine by keeping that term in the backs of their minds, but in reality, focusing their attention and effort on that continuous improvement “carrot.” Since that’s what you’re really and truly striving for anyway when you embark on a zero defects mindset, and you want to avoid putting your employees in an untenable position, call it “continuous improvement” and call it a day. Say it with me, continuous improvement.

To me, it just feels better. Put away the “zero defects” term. No unrealistic expectations or goals here. Are we continuously improving? If not, why? How do we get back on track? And the obvious answer, which you should always come back to is: pay attention to your processes.
I think if you do that, if you always strive for a better process or product, to reduce costs, satisfy customers, and gain market share—you will succeed.

[Continuous improvement is the essence of success—InfinityQS works with Ocean Spray, a major player in the Food & Beverage industry, and they have adopted our solutions in five Craisin® dried cranberry manufacturing plants with fantastic results. Please take a look at our case study.]
Brad Forrest
By Brad Forrest
Account Manager
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