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by Roderick A. Munro, Ph.D.

As organizations evolve, whether through total quality control, Six Sigma or some other quality improvement process, they discover that much of the real-time monitoring of product or service quality is accomplished by the people who actually do the work or provide the service. As these employees' quality function is fine-tuned to match a company's continuous improvement effort, the need for those with the title of "quality inspector" diminishes. So what happens to those traditional quality inspectors?

Many managers have misapplied the ideas of Michael Hammer, as discussed in his book, Beyond Reengineering: How the Process-Centered Organization Is Changing Our Work and Our Lives (HarperCollins, 1996), by just laying off or firing the quality inspectors (thus leaving other people to do the work). Or, they change job titles to make it appear that the inspectors are doing other work without changing their function. Another strategy is to promote the inspectors to quality engineers. Unfortunately, some of these people don't know the foundations of quality engineering and, if challenged by the marketplace, fail miserably.

A News Digest story in the July 2006 issue of Quality Digest announced the release of a video that was produced in the United Kingdom during the mid-1950s. The title of this black-and-white film is Right First Time . The video is about a plant manager who receives a letter from his primary customer requiring that all products received from him, starting the following month, must be right the first time, or the supplier will have to pay to fix the problems or to have the parts inspected. Many people are very surprised to see this 50-year-old film (available in a DVD format from PQ Systems Inc.) address many of the problems that we face today. One of these is the question of what to do with hourly inspectors as the organization actually starts to improve.

Foundations
Any time the word "training" comes up in an organization, all sorts of thoughts pass through a person's mind. Many of us view training as the traditional classroom version we experienced in high school. Technically, this was education, not training. Training can be defined as being "evident when the outcomes/results… show a direct relationship to personal employee satisfaction, a transference to the employee's immediate responsibilities and the organizations goals," according to E. J. Rice, past chair of the American Society for Quality's human development and leadership division.

For our purposes, we want to focus on the issue of what to do with quality inspectors whose skills as inspectors are no longer needed in the organization. What are you going to do with them? You could lay them off, but a better approach would be to retrain them to be useful in other areas of the organization. Many organizations face international standards or customer demands for continual improvements. Because traditional quality inspectors know a lot about what is being done in your organization, the learning time for them to come up to speed and become useful participants in a continual improvement initiative in your organization can be dramatically less than having to train other personnel or even hire an outside consultant.

Inspector to quality technician
To develop an effective learning initiative, you should first assess the current knowledge of the employees who will be going through the process. For instance, those who have been doing mechanical inspection may have a body of knowledge similar to the ASQ Certified Mechanical Inspector Program, with skills in the following areas:

Technical mathematics

Metrology

Inspection and test

Quality assurance

Basic statistics and applications

Statistical process control

Quality improvement

Quality tools and techniques

 

Other inspectors in your organization might be more in line with the ASQ Certified Quality Improvement Associate. The body of knowledge for these employees would include:

Quality basics

Terms, concepts and principles

Benefits of quality

Quality philosophies

Teams

Types of teams

Roles and responsibilities

Team formation and group dynamics

Continuous improvement

Incremental and breakthrough improvement

Improvement cycles

Quality improvement tools

Customer-supplier relationships

 

The challenge is to determine what skills and knowledge levels you will expect from the people who will be involved in any continual improvement projects that you're planning. Any good training organization or program should lay out not only the learning objectives but also the knowledge and skill sets required prior to the learning event, and what will be expected from the individuals when they leave. The program should also have a pre-established set of questions or research facts that can be used to verify that the learning process was effective at some predetermined time following the learning. Typically, this is three to six months after the initial training has occurred.

Using a recognized standard is one good way to help ensure that you're teaching what the participants will need to know in their new job responsibilities. Some managers are starting to use the ASQ Certified Six Sigma Green Belt process. Another good benchmark would be the ASQ Certified Quality Technician. We prefer the CQT because we can use either managers or Black Belts to run the meetings, leaving the newly trained employees ready to do some intensive study on improving processes.

The baseline for technicians (CQT body of knowledge) includes:

Quality concepts

Quality tools

Team functions

Statistical techniques

General concepts

Calculations

Control charts

Metrology and calibration

Measurement and test equipment

Calibration

Inspection and test

Blueprint reading and interpretation

Inspection concepts

Inspection techniques and processes

Sampling

Quality audits

Audit types

Audit components

Tools and techniques

Preventive and corrective action

Nonconforming material

 

The initial transition
To start the transition in one plant, we reviewed our hourly inspectors (who were part of the quality department) on three key attributes: willingness to learn, positive attitude and whether they had good business sense. If any of these attributes are missing, there may be problems in their ability to make the shift in a way that benefits both them and the organization. We transitioned some long-term hourly employees to the salary ranks with the intent of providing extra coaching as needed to help them make the transition. Human resources set up an agreement with the current employees who made the first transition that at any time over a six-month period, if they didn't like the new work, they could return to the hourly ranks but would have to take on a production job because inspection was not going to be done as in the past.

For example, Alex had been with the company for many years and only became an inspector because a machine replaced his regular job. Because he was a good employee, the company thought that they were rewarding him by keeping him working; however, he really disliked inspection work and would rather have had an hourly production job again. He was allowed to return to the production floor.

We also developed a matrix of which employees had which skills and training. Based on the number of people we were dealing with in each skill set, we established training programs--some on-the-job, others by having the employees read materials, view videos or participate in other learning activities. This helped bring all of the new technicians up to a common skill-set level.

Sally, for example, had been with the company for 11 years and had worked with nearly every gage in the plant. Joe had been there for much less time and only knew how to use a couple of gages well. We assigned Joe to cross-train with Sally to learn how to use more gages.

Moving forward
Once we felt confident that we had everyone at about the same level (which took five months) we then started preparing for delivering training to the ASQ CQT skill level. At this stage we allowed any interested parties to join ASQ as an associate member and offered to pay for anyone who might want to take the CQT exam once they felt that they were ready. Because we had several certified quality engineers on staff, we started using them to teach the initial subjects in quality concepts and tools as well as quality audits. We also had an in-house Master Six Sigma Black Belt who was working with the continual improvement team,which was part of the purchasing group.

He started teaching classes in the areas of corrective and preventive actions, and statistical techniques. We weren't concerned that his focus was on the Six Sigma format because the concept of continual improvement uses all the same tools. Our primary focus was to establish a small team of people who could focus on business improvement projects while still helping with parts inspection if necessary.

The training took about four months, based on an average of about two days per week in formal learning settings, with the remainder of the time spent doing hands-on work in the plant. The management team had established projects using the Six Sigma model to focus the learning initiatives of the participants, managers and floor supervisors; the Master Black Belt ran the teams and coordinated the actions needed to ensure improvement.

Under the leadership of the Master Black Belt, the initial projects progressed very well, and all improvement targets were met. Because the Master Black Belt had been working in the plant for a few years, he and management understood each other and how to make the process work for continual improvement. The one challenge that did occur during this effort was a corporate reorganization that caused a number of people to be moved around, with a few even being let go to reduce the overall head count. Those losing their jobs included several people in training as technicians, but the process continued and all projects were completed on time.

Reviewing the process
Here is an overview of what to consider when thinking about a training program, either ongoing or as a new initiative:

Do the prospective participants want to learn the new skills?

Do the prospective participants have the needed background to learn the skills desired by management?

What support systems and materials are available for individuals?

Is time allotted for effective learning during the initiative?

Will the participants have the opportunity to use the new skills and/or learning either during the initiative or shortly after (just-in-time training)?

Who will deliver the learning initiative? If electronic delivery is being used, how will facilitation be handled?

Will management be ready to support and encourage the new skills and learning in the organization?

Is a learning initiative evaluation method being used to ensure long-term effectiveness?

What will be the method used to evaluate whether the training had a positive effect on safety, quality, delivery, cost, morale or environment?

 

Summary
The final results of our actions will need some more time to demonstrate long-term effectiveness; however, our short-term results have been very encouraging. The plant is in fact in an expansion mode as 10 new high-volume programs are being launched during an 18-month period. Everyone in the plant is very busy at this time.

Using the former inspectors as roving problem solvers and prevention specialists is allowing us to more quickly stabilize our manufacturing processes and strive for ongoing improvements. The production people, on the other hand, can now take more pride in the work they do knowing that once the product leaves their hands, the part will go directly to the original equipment manufacturers' assembly plant to be installed on vehicles.

About the author
Roderick A. Munro, Ph.D., is a business improvement coach with RAM Q Universe Inc. and the author of the popular international books Six Sigma for the Shop Floor: A Pocket Guide and Six Sigma for the Office: A Pocket Guide , both from ASQ Quality Press.