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First of a three-part series look at what is and is not quality.
By Tom Dossenbach
During the past several months, I have received more requests to write articles about quality than any other topic. Although I have written about this subject on several occasions, we probably have neglected the topic to a degree as of late.
This month, I seek to remedy that situation by kicking off a three-part series on quality. The objective of this series is to demystify the subject of quality management.
Quality management is one of the many tools of lean manufacturing. I trust that you and those in leadership positions within your organization recognize the importance of quality and its essential role in perpetuating your company's success. Therefore, I am not going to even try to sell the merits of quality management. It suffices to say that if you want to survive in today's globally intense competitive environment, then you had better embrace quality as job one.
Having said that, it is almost universally true that every wood products manufacturer thinks that his quality is the best. If I ask a president to define the strengths of his company, the reply almost always will include a statement that his company's products are of high quality. If I ask you this question, I doubt you would tell me anything different. No one wants to say they make poor-quality products. The next question is "By whose standard do you base your statement?" In other words, how did you determine that your quality is superior or even good? It is essential that we know what quality is in our wood products before we can manage it.
What Quality Isn't
During my 40 years in the wood products industry, I have often been asked, "What is acceptable quality and what is not?" All of us will agree that there are many interpretations as to the quality level of any product. Some think that quality is defined by the workmanship in a product. This is a good point, but it is a very narrow one. Let's look at an example:
Suppose you manufacture wooden outdoor furniture and the workmanship in the wood machining and the finish is outstanding. The chairs look and feel great; it is obvious that highly skilled craftsmen made them. After six months, the pine legs and fabric begin rotting and the metal hardware begins rusting. The workmanship of machining the wood and applying the finish did not alter the fact that the wrong type of wood and fabric were used, and that the hardware was not made for outdoor use. Thus, I submit that the perception of "quality workmanship" in this simple example is deceiving and does not, in itself, define the quality level of this furniture.
Another total misconception of measuring quality has to do with price or cost. I cannot tell you how much it makes me cringe when I hear a conversation that links price to quality. For example, how many times have you heard someone say, "Oh, they make high-quality furniture because it is really expensive"? Price has absolutely nothing to do with quality - nada, zip, zero. Allow me to illustrate.
Suppose I own a fully loaded SUV - a real snazzy 4WD that costs $80,000. What if every time it rained, the thing would not start? How would the price-to-quality ratio look in this case? On the other hand, suppose I have owned an economy car and never experienced a single problem - not one. What do you think about the price-to-quality ratio in this case? It is basically 180 degrees from the hypothetical $80,000 SUV.
Quality is not price related and it is not just a matter of workmanship. A fancy veneered piece of furniture is not intrinsically better quality than a melamine cabinet. So, what is quality and how can it be defined to apply to your products?
What Quality Is
To define what quality really is, we need look no further than to those who buy or use our products or services. When you buy something, you expect it to meet specific needs. You have certain requirements of a product and that is why you usually shop around to find the model that best meets your needs. If you buy a lawn mower, you want it to do a good job in your yard. If you buy a dresser, you want it to meet certain requirements for use in your home. When you make the purchase, you have a perception that the product will meet these requirements or you would have chosen a different piece from a different manufacturer.
Thus, you expect the finish to hold up, the drawers to work smoothly and that it will last a long time. If these expectations are met, you will deem the product of high quality - regardless of price. Thus, we can say that quality is meeting customer requirements (or expectations).
As simple as this may seem, it is critical for you, as a manufacturer, to see and accept this and to plan all of your quality management activities around this definition. Put another way, you and your employees need to look at quality through the eyes and minds of the customer.
Define Customers' Expectations
So far, the issues of quality management I have presented have been simple and straightforward. What must you do to make sure your customers' expectations are met? One of the reasons that efforts to manage quality fail is that there is no clear definition of what must be done to produce quality wood products within the company. How often have you been in a discussion about quality and someone indicated that quality and its measurement are subjective.
For example, I remember a heated quality debate that took place at an office furniture chair factory, for which I served as a consultant. We went to the warehouse and I requested that five cartons be pulled at random. We opened them to inspect and audit product quality to determine if they would meet customer expectations.
We inspected the chairs closely and put a bright colored piece of tape beside anything that we felt would not be acceptable to the customer. As I recall, the list included "nicks and dings" in the finished wood frame where they had been hit with an upholsterer's staple gun, crooked sewing lines, hanging threads, scratches, improperly sanded sealer in spots and rough under arms, among others. The union representative, quality control manager and the plant manager could not agree on what was acceptable or not acceptable quality or how many defects were allowable on any one chair.
I brought the debate to a halt by asking, "If you bought each of these chairs, what would you expect?" Of course, some tried to rationalize that a few of the problems would be acceptable, but upon further reflection, the consensus was reached that no defects were acceptable. I reminded them that when they bought a new car, they did not allow one scratch per 500 square centimeters. Nor did they allow one spot no larger than a pencil eraser with no paint, and they would not allow a thread hanging loose on the leather driver's seat.
It pains me to hear someone state that we work with wood, and because wood is an imperfect raw material, wood products are going to have defects. Maybe wood does have different character and characteristics, but you should never pass on any product that would be unacceptable to your customers- wood or no wood.
If you can agree that your wood products must be such that they will give complete customer satisfaction, you have formed the foundation for managing quality. Now, you need to express customer requirements in terms that can be building blocks for quality. You must identify and define those things that are unacceptable in your products so that their absence will create a totally acceptable product for your customers and thus can be classified as high quality. This means that you must listen to dealers, sales personnel and consumers, and must thoroughly review all customer service records to identify all conceivable objections to your products.
Every company must document each of its product standards sufficiently to benchmark the level of excellence required in all critical areas of the product. This includes not only all manner of workmanship, but also material specifications, product engineering and other issues, such as those noted in the "Quality Checklist" box on page 27. The level of detail is simply that level necessary to assure your compliance to customer requirements.
Communicate Customer Requirements
In order to raise the level of quality awareness among your company employees, you must educate them on the customer requirements you have identified and the specifications you have developed to guarantee that these requirements are met. Without this critical step, there is no chance for managing quality in your woodworking plant.
You must provide adequate information so that everyone in your organization knows how to do his job in such a way as to produce a product that will comply with customers expectations. It is management's responsibility to educate and the responsibility of everyone to execute. Do your employees understand what quality is and what is necessary to produce a quality product in your company? If not, get started creating quality awareness today.
Next month we will look at defect prevention vs. defect detection in Managing Quality- Part II.
Tom Dossenbach is managing director of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or at www.dossenbach.com.
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