Automate your inspection process!
March 9, 2016 | 9:00 am CST
Before you do a double-take and check to make sure that this article was really written by me, I want to assure you that you aren't seeing things. The only part I left out of the title was "- not" at the end, which usually indicates that the writer was simply making a joke.
This topic came to mind because of an email that I received from a reputable company that deals mainly in software applications for a variety of industries. They offer a number of productivity improvement, “Lean Thinking” solutions to our industry, but in this case they got it all wrong. The subject line of the email was, "Lean How to Automate Your Inspection Documentation." Needless to say, the subject got my attention, but not for the reason the sender intended.

Is inspection lean?

For the company that created the advertisement, automating the inspection documentation process is an important subject. The question for their audience was, "Do you spend hours every day manually creating quality inspection reports?" I am familiar with ISO standards, PPAP reporting, and other compliance reporting systems, which, on the surface, make it seem like there could be a productivity gain in automating the current manual reporting process.
However, think about the whole inspection process, and the reasoning for it, from a lean perspective. Why is inspection necessary? Why is it important to have your company registered to one of the ISO or other certification standards? Who created the need for such systems?
I'm old enough to remember when ISO requirements came into being, and I have been around enough to observe that many companies that claim ISO certification only live in the world of compliance when they are due for an audit. Then it is all-hands-on-deck to get the paperwork up to date. The system was created by people engaged in inspection activity for people engaged in inspection activity. It is almost like job security when the job isn't necessary to begin with.


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“The office needs it.”

Inspection is waste! The waste is compounded by unnecessary reporting and record keeping. I recall watching a person preparing a piece of furniture with gold leaf. It is a very meticulous and arduous process. After completing each piece, she recorded some information on a form. I asked her about the information and she said the front office needed it for warranty tracking purposes. I have experienced enough of "the office needs it" phantom rule to question it every time it comes up.
The result of my investigation into this incident was no different than at any other time. No one in the office needed the information. The process had been put in place because of a field issue quite some time earlier, but had been eliminated. Rather than inform the person doing the work the office person simply threw the forms away.
That may sound out of the ordinary, but when I was an engineer at a furniture plant in Michigan, I experienced something similar first-hand. The IT department ran production reports overnight for the engineering supervisors to analyze in the morning - at least that was the perception. Every morning a 4 x 4 x 4 container was staged outside the engineering office to collect all of the reports that were run the night before. No one needed them, but the reports kept coming anyway.

Preventing mistakes

We believe that inspection is necessary because people and machines make mistakes. If you take the Five-Why approach to drilling down to the root cause for a mistake you will usually find that it was controllable. Mistakes occur for a variety of reasons; wrong or bad information, faulty equipment, broken tools or fixtures, poor training, lack of standardized procedures, errors or omissions, and poorly communicated acceptance criteria. All of those reasons are preventable through the application of lean thinking.
I'm sure you are familiar with the cliché "You can't inspect quality into a product." What is quality anyway? Quality is simply conformance to standard. Who sets the standard at your company - the customer, the boss, or the individual process owner? I bet it is a blending of all three that has evolved over time and is no longer recognizable.

Who sets standards?

I recently visited a company where two people were working side by side performing the same task.  Parts were presented to them in a random order from whatever was next in line. One person was continually sending parts back to the upstream processes while the other person seemed to be having few, if any, issues with the incoming parts. When I presented my observation to the supervisor he said that the person who was sending parts back was very particular and didn't want to be slowed down by parts that didn't appear to be right. On the other hand, the second person was new and not as experienced so he didn't possess the tribal knowledge of the seasoned worker.
There is something wrong with that picture. Did the parts really not meet standard, or did they just not meet this person's interpretation of acceptability? That is an important question to ponder because you could well have the same situation going on in your shop. Who sets the standard? How is the standard communicated? In my travels I get to see a lot of different "standards." Most of them are home grown and have evolved over time. Usually the boss in the front office has a perception of what is taking place in the shop, and he certainly has an expectation of the standard of quality that is being sent to the customer, but he doesn't really know.

Phantom rules

Many of my cabinet customers make their own doors and drawer fronts. At one shop I observed stiles and rails being checked for flatness after every part was cut to length. At another shop there was never any checking for flatness. Is that an important quality criterion? Well, in all the time that I observed the person checking for flatness I never saw him reject a single piece. Is the flatness check one of those phantom rules that never disappeared when it was no longer needed?
Standards, in the form of written specifications and standardized work are essential for ensuring that every person is applying the same acceptance criteria to every part produced. Standardized work needs to reflect the "best practice" for performing the task, and it has to be reviewed and updated periodically. When people deviate from standard work mistakes happen. A TPM program will ensure that equipment is always in a high state of functionality and readiness. You can find out more about these two important lean tools in the FDMC archives.
Remember, inspection is waste! If you have any deliberate inspection steps going on in your shop, find out why and eliminate the cause. Focus on doing it right the first time - every time, and hold people accountable for the work they pass to their internal customer.

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About the author
Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis has worked in the furniture industry for 40 years with a special emphasis on facilitating the transformation process for businesses embracing the Lean Business Model.  Jim’s company, The Center for Lean Learning, is headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI, with an office in St. Thomas, ON, Canada.  He is a consultant, author, and writer.  Jim’s books include, “The Journey to Excellence – Successfully Applying Lean Thinking in Your Business,” “A Testament to Lean Thinking – Cases for Change,” and a series of ebooklets under the main title “Applying Lean Thinking.”  The books are in ebook format and are available through all major ebook retailers and through