Better by Design


People are at least as important as process when it comes to quality improvement

Article by Andrew Brooks for SHOP: Metalworking Technology

Quality is a simple enough concept. But implementing an organizational process to improve and maintain high levels of quality is more complex. Which may be why there are misconceptions about what a quality management system (QMS) is and how to implement one.

"It sounds like an easy definition, but it's endlessly complicated," says Dr. Adam Stoehr, vice president, Education & Research at Excellence Canada. Excellence Canada is an independent, non-profit organization and the custodian of the Canada Award for Excellence. It also maintains the Excellence, Innovation and Wellness Standard for organizational performance.

"One of the misconceptions I encounter is that quality management is about 'counting stuff.' What it's really about is people: it's about how attitude and behaviours in an organization align with certain principles or values. Achieving that alignment and then acting consistently on it is a big part of quality."

Quality management is a continuous process, not an end state. "Quality is about meeting or exceeding requirements and trying to do that first time, every time, at the lowest possible cost," Stoehr says. "Really what you're getting at is a dedication to continual improvement as opposed to a dedication to perfection."

The fact that the best-known quality specification, ISO9001, is continually being revised is probably the best proof that we're dealing with a moving target. The latest revisions, introduced last year, broaden the scope of quality improvement to include more of the 'people' side – particularly how a business is managed.

"This is very important because you always have to focus on the business side," says Werner Scheliga, president of Delta Qualified Solutions (DQS) Canada, which provides continuous improvement training and consulting to Canadian organizations, many of them in the automotive sector. "Quality management refers not only to product quality, environmental issues, health and safety and so on, but also to the management culture. You have to look into the overall management of the business."

The human factor is recognized as paramount in the success of any QMS implementation. Accordingly, one of the latest revisions to ISO9001 is the requirement that the organization identify all 'interested parties' early on in the process, both within the four walls and outside, whether customers or supply chain partners.  

"The interested parties are pretty much everybody that is connected to your company," Scheliga says. "So you start with your management and your employees. But it includes your suppliers, your customers, everybody you deal with."

For a company that's serious about making real, significant improvements with a QMS, that 360-degree scope can have serious consequences, up to and including major changes in the supply chain.

"Recently we were helping out a company that had one supplier that was causing them a lot of headaches," Scheliga says. "The supplier wouldn't do anything about their non-conformities or take action to correct their processes. In the end, the company decided to look for another supplier. That's how it works. You try your best, and if that doesn't work, you go somewhere else."

If a company is already profitable and well run, implementing a QMS is likely to take much less effort and cause less disruption than many people fear. In fact, it may not even be necessary at all. But once the decision is made, the implementation has to be done carefully. One problem, says Scheliga, is that companies often start off on the wrong foot.

"In a lot of cases companies just set out with a list of what the standard requires and make their operations conform to that," Scheliga says. "But you really should start with what you're doing already, how it complies to the standard. Ultimately you see that you may be missing a piece here and a piece there. Rather than doing a complete overhaul with all the cost, effort and disruption associated with it, you can build out a project plan that adjusts what you need to adjust."

For Adam Stoehr, the key to successful QMS implementation is a three-pronged approach. The first element is that people part: getting everybody in an organization on-board with the need for quality improvement. The second, related element, is putting in place an organizational strategy and a strategic mindset that emphasizes the importance of – and need for – quality improvement. The third is a rigorous approach to that improvement that proceeds deliberately, process by process. Here again, however, many companies get things the wrong way around.

"The process-by-process piece tends to be what people think of first when they think about QMS, and it can be intimidating," Stoehr says. "You have to get all three parts working together. I think of the process as the three legs of a stool. It won't stay standing with just one or two legs."

For organizations that may be concerned about the expense of implementing a QMS, Stoehr has some advice. "If you have a short-sighted strategy, you can see [the expense] as a burden. But long-term, an organization that pays attention to quality reduces the costs of failure, of reworking, redoing, repurposing. Less of that will happen. The upfront costs of training and planning and process improvement – the kinds of things I call prevention costs – are miniscule compared to what you're preventing from taking place in the future."

In other words, a quality management system can more than pay for itself. Stoehr points out while that no QMS can prevent every failures or mistake, one that has been implemented properly and is maintained over the long term on a continual-improvement basis will reduce those problems, and enable an organization to deal more effectively with the ones that do happen.

"The end result," says Stoehr, " will be lower overall cost."