Monday, October 21, 2013

Quality Beyond Manufacturing

In this month’s ASQ post Paul Borawski asks about quality beyond it’s roots in manufacturing.

Customers and companies alike recognize that quality is an important attribute in products and services. Suppliers recognize that quality can be an important differentiator between their own offerings and those of competitors.

It was in the second part of the twentieth century that ‘quality’ boomed in application by industrial and service organizations. Japan and the United States were the first countries to look at quality as an important competitive advantage. However, the quality movement can trace its roots back to medieval Europe, where craftsmen began organizing into unions called guilds in the late 13th century. Until the early 19th century, manufacturing in the industrialized world tended to follow this craftsmanship model. The factory system, with its emphasis on product inspection, started in Great Britain in the mid-1750s and grew into the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. In the early twentieth century, manufacturers began to include quality processes in production. It was only in the late 1970s that service quality emerged as a solid management discipline and practice.

Recently, quality improvements (and Lean) have moved from manufacturing plants to operations of all kinds, everywhere: insurance companies, hospitals, government agencies, airlines, high-tech product development units, oil production facilities, IT operations, retail buying groups, and publishing companies, to name just a few. In each case the goal is to improve the organization’s performance on the operating metrics that make a competitive difference, by engaging employees in the process and improvement activities.

The biggest challenges in adopting the quality (and Lean) approach in nonindustrial environments are to know which of its tools or principles to use and how to apply them effectively. Organizations succeed or fail based on what happens within specific key business processes. Focused process improvement is a fundamental requirement to sustain initiatives like quality or Lean and to generate positive results.

All products and services are produced and delivered through work or business processes. A process can be defined as the sequential integration of people, materials, methods, and machines so as to produce value-added outputs for. A process converts measurable inputs into measurable outputs through an organized sequence of steps. Furthermore, the process model applies to both manufacturing and nonmanufacturing work.

Nonmanufacturing processes differ from their manufacturing counterparts in any of three ways. Manufacturing is unique in that (1) its customers are isolated from production, (2) its outputs are tangible, and (3) its operations are highly repetitive. By contrast, customers usually are involved directly in the delivery of services, and the value added by nonmanufacturing processes is often characterized as intangible. Some nonmanufacturing processes are repeated infrequently, and their outputs can be unique.

Customer participation in the production of the output is the first key characteristic which distinguishes manufacturing from nonmanufacturing processes.

Many organizations don’t sustain their quality or Lean eorts because they are not focused on improving critical business processes. Successful companies recognize the need to extend the quest for quality beyond manufacturing. Quality awareness must be inherent in all aspects of our business through new product development, manufacturing, administration, sales and customer service.

As the quality (or Lean) approach percolates into ever wider circles, it ceases to be about best practices and starts to become a part of the fabric of doing business.  The next level of the quality (or Lean) journey is managing the softer side of the equation – less about tools and frameworks, more about building the energy and engagement of employees from the shop floor and the office, tapping into their ideas, focusing them on constant problem solving, and keeping them open to change and flexibility.

I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own. 

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