How to Avoid the 10 Biggest Quality Mistakes


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By Craig Cochran, Project Manager, Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) at Georgia Tech

Learning from other people’s mistakes is one of the most effective ways to improve. There are plenty of mistakes out there to learn from, but the trick is to recognize them and understand what to do instead. Let’s examine the 10 most common quality mistakes and see how they can be corrected.

1. Limiting quality objectives to traditional quality topics

Quality is reflected in everything your organization does, and a quality objective can be anything measurable that relates to your organization’s success. A quality objective might relate to finances, customer feedback, safety, efficiency, speed or innovation. All these attributes relate to quality in one way or another. When selecting quality objectives, it’s important that your organization examines what matters most to its success. Whether the resulting measure is tied to traditional quality control or quality assurance is irrelevant.

2. Holding infrequent management reviews

Management review is the process by which top management analyzes data, makes decisions and takes action. Ideally, it’s a preventive process because data should indicate developing threats before they blossom into full-blown problems. Top managers should be able to analyze data proactively to prevent problems. Holding management reviews frequently allows you to review real-time data so that actions can be preventive. If these meetings are held only once or twice a year, however, you will not get the information that is necessary to make important decisions for your company’s success.

3. Sending out long, complex customer surveys

Instead of a survey, why not simply ask your customers what they like and dislike? Don’t limit their responses to survey topics. Let your customers dictate the content of their feedback in response to open-ended questions. Few questions are more powerful than the following: What do you like? What don’t you like? What would you like to see different in the future? Open-ended feedback is also much easier to understand and take action on. A customer-satisfaction index of 3.8 is hard to interpret. On the other hand, seven out of 10 customers telling you that your Web site is confusing and pinpointing what makes it confusing provides a clearer path to improvement.

4. Assuming everyone knows what “nonconforming” looks like

When I visit organizations, one of my favorite questions is, “Where do you put the nonconforming products?” Control of nonconforming products is one of the most basic kinds of controls, and it speaks volumes about the rest of the controls embraced by the organization. Smart organizations positively identify all nonconforming products, and really smart organizations segregate them to remove all chance of accidental use. Error-proof your control of the nonconforming product process so that assumptions don’t have to be made.

5. Failing to use the corrective action process

Corrective action is the systematic way to investigate problems, identify their causes and keep the problems from happening again. Nobody wants problems, but it’s essential to have a way to deal with them when they come up. The more the corrective action process is used, the better the organization gets at addressing its risks and problems. An effective corrective action process is typically seamless, simple and intuitive. Actions developed correctly add a little structure to problem solving and don’t create additional bureaucracy.

6. Applying document control only to official documents

Most organizations do a decent job of controlling “official” documents: the procedures and work instructions that form the core of the quality management system (QMS). These are often written, approved and issued according to very specific guidelines. What organizations don’t do very well is control unofficial documents, many of which are more important than the official ones. These may be memos that include procedural steps, Post-it Notes with special requirements, emails with customer specifications, and many others. These informal resources become documents when they’re shared for people to use, and they’re some of the most important documents within an organization. Apply document control to all documents, and scrutinize your document control process to keep it streamlined and effective.

7. Focusing audits on petty, nonstrategic details

Auditing is the process of comparing actual operations against commitments the organization has made. It’s a simple, fact-driven process that can generate huge improvements. However, these improvements happen only if auditors focus on the right things. Too often, internal auditors become preoccupied with petty details and neglect the big issues. They’re uncomfortable examining the big, strategic issues. It’s important for your organization to provide training and skill-building to your internal auditors to avoid these common pitfalls.

8. Training some personnel, but not all

Most organizations provide significant training to hourly production personnel. Salaried and managerial personnel are often neglected, however. Why? Because there’s a perception that salaried workers don’t affect product conformity. This is a serious error.

All personnel must be included in the training process. Salaried and managerial personnel need more–not less–training because their decisions and actions have larger and more lasting effects. When an hourly employee makes a mistake, it could cost money. When a top manager makes a mistake, it could put you out of business. Train your employees early and often.

9. Doing anything just because an external auditor told you to

In my travels to companies, I often ask people why they’re carrying out a process the way they are. I always raise this question when the process seems unwieldy or illogical. In a surprising number of cases, the answer will be, “Because the external auditor said we should do it that way.” Before you jump into any recommendation, conduct a reality check to make sure it makes sense for your organization.

10. Employing someone who only oversees the QMS

Having a person who does nothing but oversee the ISO 9001 (or any other) QMS is not a good idea as it guarantees two things:

  • First, the QMS coordinator will become isolated from the rest of the organization. Because the person does nothing but serve the QMS, he or she loses touch with why the organization exists and what the organization’s objectives are. The system becomes paramount over the organization’s business concerns.
  • Second, the QMS will become bloated and bureaucratic because it must expand to completely fill someone’s time. Procedures become more complicated, methods more cumbersome and the benefits more ambiguous.

A quality management system needs to be a streamlined and simple engine for success. Instead of being an adjunct to the way an organization conducts business, it needs to be The Way business is conducted. Weave the system into the day-to-day flow of activities and watch it produce results.

And by all means learn from the mistakes of others.

This is part of a series of articles for manufacturing improvement. Download a pdf of How to Avoid the 10 Biggest Quality Mistakes.

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