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Arun Hariharan

Customer Care

What Technology Can and Can’t Do for Quality

It takes humans to build the right organizational culture

Published: Wednesday, February 3, 2016 - 14:01

Technology is a useful tool in quality. That said, there are limits to what technology can do. Here’s my summary of its advantages and disadvantages for quality professionals.

1. Data and measurements. Technology can help you automate measurements and analysis of data (Minitab statistical software and other types of software can do this). However, technology can’t tell you what to measure in the first place; you have to figure out important quality- and customer-related performance measurements based on your business, strategy, competition, and other factors. Technology can help you automate the actual measurement and reporting. Again, you will have to act on the data and opportunities for improvement shown by the data and analysis. And finally, technology can be a useful aid but never a substitute for the CEO’s and other leaders’ personal involvement and review of quality dashboards.

2. Product quality. Technology can help improve product quality, but we need to build an organizational attitude of listening to customers to ensure that we don’t lose any opportunity for continuous improvement. For example, many customer complaints can actually be opportunities to improve product quality, but how many of these opportunities are missed simply because we don’t treat complaints as opportunities?

3. Managing processes. Technology can help automate processes. However, technology can’t identify the best or most efficient process. Gemba walks—observing the process as it happens on the shop floor—need to be done by humans. So does taking a step back. How do you know what processes your company needs in the first place? Technology can’t tell you this. In several companies, we used “strategic COPIS” to figure out what processes the business needed. My book Continuous Permanent Improvement (ASQ Quality Press, 2014) explains the concept and method of strategic COPIS (customer, output, process, input, suppler) with examples from manufacturing and services.

4. Root cause analysis and prevention of defects. Technology can’t do root cause analysis and identify process improvements, although you might be able to use technology as an aid to these. When encountering customer complaints or product defects, you will have to apply your mind to identify the root cause, and based on that finding, identify process improvements to eliminate the root cause and prevent the defect from happening again. You may then be able to use technology as an aid to mistake proof or poka-yoke the process.

5. Quality as a strategy. Companies that have achieved substantial and sustained business results through quality use quality as a strategy rather than just doing some disjointed quality initiatives or projects at a merely tactical level. For quality to be a strategy, top management must be involved. It also takes an organizationwide attitude of prioritizing quality for customers. Technology can never help you align your quality program with your strategic business priorities; the CEO and senior management, perhaps facilitated by an experienced strategic quality professional, must do this.

6. Customer-centricity. Technology can help you measure customer issues and enable you to listen to your customers’ voice, but technology can’t instill a customer-centric culture in the organization.

7. Quality tools and techniques. Technology can help with some of the tools used by quality professionals—for example, creating a Pareto chart or applying other statistical techniques. However, it takes knowledge and experience to identify the most appropriate tool for the particular quality problem that you are trying to solve. While reviewing Six Sigma quality projects, for instance, I’ve come across numerous instances where irrelevant tools were used. In my experience, most of the time the root cause for this was a Black Belt trying to show off the tools learned during training, even if some of the tools weren’t relevant to the particular business problem in hand.

8. Managing knowledge and best practices. Technology can help us search for best practices. Technology can’t create a genuine intent to bring in best practices and implement them. You must have that intent.

The bottom line is that technology can be a useful enabler to quality and continuous improvement, but it takes humans to build the right organizational culture and attitude for quality and customers, and to figure out how and where to use technology.

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About The Author

Arun Hariharan’s picture

Arun Hariharan

Arun Hariharan, author of Continuous Permanent Improvement (ASQ 2014), and The Strategic Knowledge Management Handbook (ASQ 2015) is a strategic quality, knowledge management (KM), and performance management practitioner with nearly three decades of experience in these fields. He has worked with several large companies and helped them achieve substantial and sustained results through quality and customer focus. He is the founder and CEO of The CPi Coach, a company that provides partnership, consulting, and training in business excellence and related areas. Former roles held by Hariharan include president of quality and knowledge management at Reliance Capital Ltd, and senior vice-president of quality and knowledge management at Bharti Airtel Ltd, India. He is a frequent speaker at quality and KM events around the world. He is also the author of more than 50 published papers on quality and KM.