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Paying a Penance for Poor Quality--Thoughts from the Recycling Center

Posted By Everette Phillips, January 24, 2014 at 11:20 AM, in Category: Sustainability

When you are putting in 40-to-80-hour work weeks, it is sometimes good to take the time to do activities that allow you to clear your mind while still being productive.  These activities give you time to take a step back and think about how business or personal processes can be improved. Washing the car or cleaning the house can fall into this category sometimes.

Recently, a trip to the  recycling center brought about my awareness of areas where my business could improve.  Our company needed some space in the warehouse that was occupied by non-conforming product. It needed to go to the recycling center. I was in the mood for getting out of the office to think, so I volunteered.

It was a really nice Southern California day, especially for January. I arrived at the recycling center, and they set out three containers for me: one for sheet metal, one for cardboard, and one for non-paper packing materials.  I then set upon the task of opening each box, tossing the cardboard into the cardboard bin, tossing the packing material into the non-paper bin and throwing these beautiful, complicated, custom 19-inch racks into the metal container.

Every company President should have this kind of close-up experience with non-conforming scrap. It is similar to the experience of opening a box that has a $20 bill, throwing the box in the cardboard bin and then throwing the $20 bill into the shredder.

As I worked at the task at hand, it felt like I was paying a “penance” for allowing a “quality sin.” I was forced to think about how our quality system can be improved.

And it made me sad to think of the wasted man-hours that went into the product. The materials manager selected the material correctly and managed the materials certificate. The stamping, cutting, bending and welding for the assembly were perfect and looked great. The powder coating on the part was beautiful. Everyone did their job and did it well. But the fruits of their labor would not see the light of day other than from the recycling bin under the warm sun. 

There had only been one mistake, and it was made at the final stage of production – screen printing. Some letters – and just some – were not as sharp as required to make these  conforming parts. They were good – but not good enough.

“Good enough” is the enemy of the Quality Management System. The temptation to accept “good enough” is something that your quality system must weed out. The acceptance criteria must be clear. Our customer paid for a specific quality level – esthetics that would tell his customer that they are a quality organization and that their products had value. 

Screen printing was not the most expensive operation within the production process. But, like any mistake of this nature, this one destroyed the value created up to that point.

How do we help our quality inspectors to realize the value and importance of their job and encourage them to innovate and improve the quality process? For that matter, how do we communicate to each employee that their job is valuable? How can we help them draw the line and resist the temptation to change acceptance criteria when under pressure from sales management or production management?

These were some of the thoughts that ran through my head as I sorted and threw beautiful product into the bin. From ten feet away, each item in the bin looked perfect, even the screen printing. But I knew each would not meet the acceptance criteria. I also developed some understanding of the root cause and will work with my staff on corrective action.

I realized we need to focus on numbers and investigate what happened without emotion. But we also needed to avoid overreacting by, for example, adding inspection and QC system costs that do not yield a return on investment. We are involved in a highly competitive situation, where the competing firm that can produce the highest quality parts at the lowest costs will eventually dominate the market.

And, as I threw our product into the recycling bin, I must admit I coped with some emotion. A bin of shredded $20 bills can cause a great deal of emotion. I wanted to strip the screen printing and submit the parts for screen printing again. I wanted to preserve the good work that was done.

But I had to face the fact that we experienced  three failures in the quality system:1) the screen printer did not value the quality enough to carefully examine his or her work and take pride in producing the best quality; 2) The packaging person did not carefully look at the product nor take interest enough to identify and report the problem, and 3) The final inspector did not look closely enough and accepted the parts as “good enough.”

And, from five feet or more, the parts did look “good enough.” One had to inspect within one or two feet to see the defects. Some letters were not as crisp as the spec required. As a result, when shipping was added, it was cheaper to remake the parts than to rework them. Hence the trip to the recycling center.

I learned something else while at the recycling center. As I worked in my little corner of the yard, I could see an endless stream of people arriving, sorting, and leaving. I saw people working very hard for what, in the end, was very little cash. They were stripping and disassembling and sorting items that they had collected or were paid to haul away. 

These were people who had a sense of responsibility and entrepreneurship, who were driven by doing anything needed for their families. And there were families arriving and leaving on a regular basis.  Some were obviously people who were paid to haul junk to the dump, but who were industrious enough to sort out some additional value. Others were desperate enough to do so.

My conclusion was that there are many people who want to work and will take on any task to earn money. How can we as managers tap into that energy and create competitive and profitable employment? How can we as a society avoid creating more barriers to employment?

Category: Sustainability
Written by Everette Phillips

Everette's experience includes robotics, advanced manufacturing, supply chain management and international manufacturing. After a career path as a robotics engineer helping automate plants in North America, he became a manager of European Operations for Factory Automation & Robotics in Europe for SEIKO living an expat in Brussels then returning to the US as GM for Advanced Mfg Technologies in North America. Currently, as President of Global Mfg Network, he is involved in coordinating production of highly engineered parts, assemblies and products across a wide range of industries in manufacturing facilities located in Asia and North America and Europe. Everette is a regular speaker and panelist on topics related to manufacturing, international business and technologies such as robotics and advanced manufacturing. He has a BS Bioengineering from Cornell and an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School. Everette serves on the board of Cornell Engineering Alumni Association as a Regional VP and on the Advisory Board for Entrepreneurship@Cornell.

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