W&WP August 2004


Zero Defect Tolerance: A Key to Going Lean

Wood product manufacturers must develop a company-wide attitude that errors are not acceptable if they are going to cost-efficiently produce products of a quality that will compete in today's global economy.

By Tom Dossenbach


A couple of months ago I received an email from a reader that prompted me to closely review my past columns. He stated that I rarely mentioned a topic that he felt was critical to the industry, namely "QUALITY." He went on to say how important the subject of quality is for the success of today's woodworking companies.

Turns out he was right. It has been too long since I devoted my column to this critical management matter. As a result, I am going to revisit some of the issues I have raised before that are as vital now as they were when I first wrote about them at the launch of this column five years ago.

First, I want to reaffirm my strong and long-held belief that a company's "attitude" toward quality begins with its top layer of management. In a large company, it is the attitude of the top six or eight managers that sets the tone and determines the level of commitment to quality among all employees.

If you ask anyone in a company what kind of products they manufacture, you are likely to get a response such as: "We manufacture high-quality store fixtures!" I have never had anyone tell me that they make a sloppy or inferior product that does not meet their customers' expectations, and I doubt that you have either. Everyone thinks their products are the highest quality or at least are of the best value.

While regular introspection of the quality of a product is necessary and helpful, it is often tainted with years of pride and prejudice. It is really the sum total of customer perspectives that ultimately count the most.

Fighting Imports

At this very moment, someone somewhere is trying to figure out what your customers are looking for and how to serve their needs better and cheaper than you do. Companies around the globe are using sophisticated means to find out how well you are satisfying these desires. If you display an obvious weakness, you are vulnerable to losing customers to these competitors.

If pride and prejudice overly influence your company's attitude toward quality, you are providing foreign aid to companies in developing countries by handing over some of your customers to them - free, with no strings attached! You should know what your customers expect from a product better than a company in Asia and should be able to react to any changes in these requirements faster and better as well.


Questions to Ponder

What is your Zero Defect Tolerance? Here are a few questions to ponder.

Do you try to manufacture products that will make your customers happy or products that suit your needs?

Do you and your company know what your customers really want?

Does your company try to stay on top of changing requirements?

Have you analyzed all customer complaints and service requests for the last year?

Do your employees in the factory know what level of quality and service your customers expect?

Do they know what the company expects of them?

Have you trained your employees to only build products that will live up to your customers' quality standards?

When was the last time you visited one of your customers who was having a problem?


Surely, you do not want to give away your customers without a fight. But the fact is, if your attitude or the attitude of your company is out of sync with your customers' expectations, your products cannot help but be inferior in their eyes. It really does not matter whether you are manufacturing furniture, millwork, kitchen cabinets, store fixtures or any other wood product. You are obligated to find out exactly what your customers are looking for in products and services and adopt that viewpoint as your own.

Remember, the definition of quality is meeting the customer's expectations or meeting the customer's requirements whether it is performance, appearance or any other criteria that defines your relationship.

Zero Defect Tolerance

A key component of good quality management is finding a means to achieve the requirements mentioned above. There is a simple but powerful philosophy that has been around for a long time: Do it right the first time, every time! I'm sure you have heard this expression, but do you and your department practice it?

The goal is to have zero defects - none, zip! The only way your company is going to achieve this is to adopt a company-wide policy in which there is zero tolerance for defects.

Many managers and supervisors have told me over the years that zero defects is impossible or too expensive to achieve, that it is a silly, pie-in-the-sky goal. With that mindset, they are exactly right and they prove it repeatedly. Some just never get it and refuse to buy into the idea that if everyone would strive to do everything according to requirements there could, in fact, be zero defect tolerance.

Tolerating occasional poor quality is the wrong attitude. If your department takes the position that mistakes are bound to happen and that a few of them now and then is no big deal, then its scrap, reject rates and wasted labor will always be at unacceptably high levels. Need proof? Consider the following illustration I used several years ago.

Lax Defect Tolerance

A tenon machine operator improperly processes a load of rails. However, the mistakes are not caught and the parts go to his "customer," the widebelt sander operator. Since her focus is sanding the pieces before assembly, they sail through her machine in just a few minutes and are placed in a storage bin for future use.

The next afternoon, the production order calls for cabinets requiring those rails. The parts are pulled and sent to an assembly station, where an assembler finds they do not match up with the stiles. Two hundred of them are needed for the order to ship that night. Extra costs are going to be incurred because the requirements for this product were not met the first time, because steps were not taken to ensure zero defect tolerance. Consider the following:

* The assembly operator will have to stop what he is doing and find out if there are any good parts available. Someone will have to inspect the entire lot in the storage bin to determine if all or just some are defective. The good parts will have to be sorted from the bad ones. If all the parts are bad, assembly of this product will have to be halted until new good ones are produced.

* Meantime, the assembler is idle while a decision is being made. At least three other people will get involved in this debacle. The other parts that have been collected for assembly of this cabinet will have to be moved out of the way by someone to make room for the next items on the schedule.

* The machine department leader will have to figure out a way to salvage what he can from the wrong-sized parts, perhaps turning them over to a saw operator to reduce them to a smaller size for future requirements. If not processed immediately, these parts may get lost or damaged, or at the very least get in the way or take up valuable space. Meanwhile, the other parts of the cabinet are already getting scattered and collecting dust.

* Someone will have to make up a shortage list for the defective parts and more lumber will have to be cut to replace the missing rails that are holding up this order - pronto. Whatever job they were working on will have to wait.

* A bright orange expedite ticket has to be prepared and the machinery has to be set up again to run this "HOT" item. It is likely that someone will be put in charge to "walk" the parts through the processing to make sure they are machined, sanded and sent to assembly ASAP.

* Meanwhile, the shipment goes out that night with the shortage back-ordered. The homebuilder is screaming mad and is ready to spit nails. He needs his next draw from the bank to make his payroll on Friday and must have his kitchen cabinets installed to qualify.

There is so much waste generated here that lean manufacturing, or even the thought of it, is obviously absent. The extra time and cost to produce these products, not to mention the missed deadline, make this company vulnerable to losing its customer to a competitor across town. Who would it be in your case?

Quality and Lean

In the example, you should have realized there was a major problem at the tenon operation. What are you going to do? Fuss at the operator? Fire him?

No, the answer is to find the root cause of the error and remove that cause - permanently.

Most problems we encounter are fixed with a band-aid approach - a "let's stop the bleeding and move on" philosophy. The problem with that kind of attitude is that your company is not like a human body. It will not heal itself with just a little care and time. Problems will not correct themselves in your department or areas of responsibility. You should know that better than anyone does.

How many times have you put a band-aid on a problem only to have it come back to haunt you again in a month or less?

You have to be proactive. Your attitude should be that the error at the tenon machine must be defined; the cause or causes need to be identified; a plan of corrective action must be determined; and finally, you must implement change to eliminate the cause of that error so that it never haunts you again.

Was it an operator error? If so, why? Does the operator need more training? Are specifications unclear on the routing ticket? Did the machine "move?" Is there a maintenance problem? Does the machine need new slides or dogs? How can quality control be improved?

Once you remove the cause, that problem will not surface again. Removing causes of errors leads to the ability to "do it right the first time" the next time. That, in turn, results in a better quality product for your customers.

So, what is your attitude?

* Are you totally committed to making quality products in your department?

* Do you believe in doing it right the first time?

* Do you have a zero tolerance for defects and are willing to teach others to do the same?

* Are you committed to getting everyone in your department equally committed to finding the real cause of problems and to correct those causes once and for all?

If you can answer yes to all four questions, then you and your department have the opportunity to become leaders in your company for achieving zero defect tolerance.

Good luck.


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