Through no fault of its own, quality management has developed a bad reputation in many organizations - treated merely as a tick box exercise that has to be completed. However, the pandemic has highlighted just how important quality is for an organisation.
Quality is directly linked to business continuity, contributing to consistent processes and constant product quality, regardless of any external circumstances that may be affecting a business.
However, Covid-19 has turned the tables in favour of quality management, as well as unique auditing methods, to help quality leaders verify process adherence amid industry change and disruption. Here's how.
Cleaning up quality's reputation
Most quality leaders got into the profession due to a genuine interest in helping companies make better products. Despite these good intentions, however, quality management tends to get a bad rap.
They're the sticklers for details. The enforcers of policies. The ones raising red flags when a plant is pushing hard to complete a big order.
Quality is often seen as something that happens in an office, concerned more with paperwork than plant floor operations. This image problem has made it very difficult for quality leaders to make an impact in the way that many had hoped to do when they started their careers.
But like it has done so many other places, the coronavirus crisis has changed the equation. Quality is an increasingly critical line of defence, helping keep businesses on a steady course as the manufacturing industry adapts to changing conditions.
Quality takes center stage amid pandemic
Manufacturing saw some of the biggest changes in decades in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, with wide-ranging effects across different industries.
Automotive manufacturing plants shut down for eight weeks in the spring, followed by a restart unlike any seen before and a stronger than expected rebound. As restaurant traffic dwindled or stopped altogether in some areas, retail food sales grew 85% last year while the food industry strained under fast-growing demand. Still other companies shifted production to critical medical supplies like ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE).
On top of changes in demand, companies had to adjust production lines to accommodate social distancing requirements, added shifts and missing workers. Supply chain disruption has been a pervasive problem, with many organisations having to rely on different suppliers with whom they have less experience.
In all of these situations, businesses face the same question:
How can we make sure quality is consistent amid such rapid change?
Process verification is the key
Given these challenges, companies need a way to ensure process adherence to root out defects when processes and lines are undergoing change. Compared to product inspections, process audits are a more effective way to do this.
For example, Auto News reported an instance where Subaru recently learned the hard way what can happen when even a single operator strays from standardised processes. In this situation, an operator using an incorrect torque wrench technique ultimately required the company to recall hundreds of vehicles.
So which approach would have been more likely to catch the problem, a process audit or a product inspection? Clearly, a process audit would be the only way to find this issue prior to manufacture.
Layered process audits drive business continuity
Layered process audits (LPAs) take process verification to a higher level. LPAs provide multiple levels of verification for high-risk or critical-to-quality process inputs. High-risk processes are audited on a daily basis, with auditors participating at a frequency based on their job role.
In essence, you have multiple individuals doing daily checks of process inputs known to cause quality problems, for example equipment settings or specific procedure steps. This makes it far more likely for defects to spotted before products are ever shipped to customers.
Benefits of this unique approach include:
• Leverage down the cost of quality by finding problems before they cause complaints
• Ensuring compliance with standards when there are changing setups and team members involved with a process
• Preventing quality escapes and audit findings that threaten business reputation
• Reducing rework that accounts for important operating capacity
While many LPA programs are administered using pen and paper, digital audit software is the key to unlocking the value of LPAs. Digital platforms manage scheduling and administration details so quality leaders can focus on analysing audit findings and following up on problems.
Ultimately, quality professionals have always known that the work they do is essential to business continuity. Today's industry challenges, however, are making that truth more visible, providing quality leaders the opportunity to make an impact like they have never done before.
By Eric Stoop, CEO of EASE, Inc