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The Secret to a Quality Process

Mon, 12/12/2011 - 4:55am
ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions

Alan Nicol, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutionsSince mankind first began to craft tools or goods, we have faced the ever-present conundrum of balancing speed of execution with quality. The key to ensuring that your process maintains quality while increasing speed is instilling the correct behaviors; namely ensuring that quality is a virtue of every individual step.

I know that it sounds obvious to say that we should install quality at every step of the process, but it seems to be left out of most lean and quality lesson plans and ignored or forgotten in the work place. Perhaps we fail to focus on it because we assume that everyone does so naturally.

However, I found myself, an instructor of quality methods and an avid process improvement professional, falling into the trap of passing the quality concern on to the next step. I was performing a tedious process that might have been done in one single step, but because of the tools at my disposal, it was easier to do in several steps. As I was performing the first step of the process, I watched the clock to determine if I stood any chance of completing the process in the time allowed, and I found myself running the risk of passing a mistake to the next step.

I assumed if I made a mistake that it would be easy to catch and correct in the next step. It was tempting to speed up the process and worry less about making sure that everything was absolutely correct, but I knew better and slowed down to do it right.

We feel pressure to process quickly. If we know that the next downstream step will correct a mistake we make, we become complacent about making that mistake. Aside from my experience, training, and pride, I also had a behavioral advantage in making my choice to slow down. I knew that I would be the one to fix a mistake and decided to save myself the hassle.

When we aren’t going to be called on to fix the mistake, or if the mistake will be sent back to us to correct at the end of the shift, cycle, or at a time when we are otherwise less pressured to process quickly, we don’t care so much about preventing it. We accept it, just like we are prone to procrastinate.

There is also a flaw in the assumption that the next step will catch and correct the mistake. The person performing the next step might be operating under the assumption that the step before is being performed with excellent focus on quality, and might not be looking for mistakes. The person downstream might be under the same pressure to process quickly, and since the mistake isn’t his or hers, they might pass it on again because it’s not perceived to be his or her problem.

The latter attitude is a form of shared culpability. In the workplace, shared culpability backfires on us because it allows personnel to rationalize that the defect isn’t their own, even though they perceived it.

Virtually every multi-step process is vulnerable to the pass-the-responsibility phenomenon. We can squelch the phenomenon in two ways. The first is to address the process. The second is to address behavior. The latter is the part most of us fail to address adequately.

First, address the process. We want to reduce the number of steps and eliminate hand-offs. If we are follow lean methods or just common sense process improvement, then we are already trying to eliminate steps and hand-offs to save time. We also want reduce the amount of people in the process. Let’s take an assembly process for example.

We have several people assemble components into a complete product, each one performing a single step and passing it on to the next. This is common. The quality argument is that because each person does just one thing, that individual becomes very good at doing it and the defect rate goes down.

It sounds logical, but human behavior is rarely logical. In my experience, the argument given fails. Boredom and shared culpability take hold of people’s minds and attention to quality vaporizes.

Instead, try to get a single individual to perform the entire assembly process. This is possible as long as specialized skills are not required.

We tend not to make mistakes when we know that we are the ones who will need to correct them. When we are solely responsible for the quality of the product we assemble, we tend to take more pride in our work. Friendly competition between processors for combined speed and quality, or competition for rewards or benefits, tends to keep us focused on performing our best.

Even with single-person processing, we can become complacent. If we allow a defect, and think that no one will notice, we become de-prioritized about quality.

Therefore, single-person processing and shared culpability mind-set cannot always be avoided. The rest of the quality performance improvement must come from behavioral adjustment. It is imperative to ensure that every step is given focus on quality, and that mistakes are prevented, not passed for correction.

We must hold the entire process team responsible.

Begin by making sure that everyone understands that they are not to pass a defect to the next step. If a person receives a defect, he or she is not to process it; he or she is to kick it out. If a defect escapes the process and is discovered, the whole process team must be held accountable and appropriate re-education or corrective action should be exercised.

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