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by Nader Fathi and Al Alaverdi

Customers value the delivery of high-quality products and services. Every defect, mistake or variance chips away at the customer’s confidence in the company’s ability to deliver. This is especially true in an economic climate where customers continually reevaluate a company’s quality and performance against that of its competition. Anything less than perfection—a single defect or a missed shipment—can have enormous costs in terms of warranty returns or a missed market opportunity.

That’s exactly what happened last year when Dell Inc. identified a problem in the Sony batteries used in its notebook computers. The effect of this defect was substantial, resulting in the recall of an estimated 4.2 million notebook computer batteries. This cost both Dell and Sony millions of dollars, and the damage to Dell’s brand has been undeniable. Sales growth has slowed, and the company now finds itself fighting brand perceptions of poor customer service. Dell is left with a red mark against its once stellar reputation.

The lesson here is obvious: The pursuit of excellence via methodologies such as Six Sigma is a necessity. Organizations can no longer keep their quality problems from customer scrutiny because inattention to them can have dramatic effects that will invariably result in unnecessary costs, inefficient production and customer dissatisfaction.

Increasingly, companies are turning to on-demand, real-time quality software to help them successfully implement Six Sigma initiatives and, ultimately, overcome poor product quality and performance. Such software enables organizations to achieve the cost reduction and continuous customer satisfaction that the marketplace demands.

Understanding Six Sigma
At its most basic, Six Sigma indicates how far from perfection a process deviates. In a real-world implementation of this methodology, a company can measure the deviation or defects in a process and then systematically figure out how to eliminate them. This is accomplished by collecting data, then analyzing and acting on them in a closed-loop system. By continuously improving on its process and product quality, a company can get as close to zero defects as possible.

The five basic steps involved in the real-world implementation of a Six Sigma initiative, often referred to as the define-measure-analyze-improve-control (DMAIC) process, can be defined as follows:

Define . Identify and articulate the benchmarks and baseline, or customer requirements, for each process. Determine how processes must improve to meet these requirements.

Measure . Identify data sources and additional information about how the process works. Develop defect measurements and a data collection process, collect data, and create forms to compile and display them.

Analyze . Examine each process from a customer perspective to determine the source of a defect or deviation. This entails verifying data, drawing conclusions and then testing those conclusions. The organization also must determine opportunities for improvement, root causes of defects, and any cause-and-effect relationships that contribute to those defects.

Improve. Identify solutions to reduce or eliminate any defects or deviations, and develop plans to implement those solutions.

Control . Modify existing processes and structures. As appropriate, implement new processes and structures to ensure that the
improved process remains within the acceptable performance range. A company must monitor and statistically measure its improvement progress to accurately assess its effectiveness and make needed adjustments.

 

When successfully implemented, Six Sigma initiatives significantly improve process and product quality. This translates into a reduction of the cost of poor quality, improved cycle times, better inventory levels, increased product reliability, satisfied customers and market domination.

Quality software’s role
Although the Six Sigma DMAIC process seems fairly straightforward, taking it from a methodology to a real-world implementation can be daunting. That’s where on-demand, real-time quality software can help. As a true enabling technology, it provides the backbone needed to make the methodology a practical reality. Its chief contribution is to simplify the process of collecting, aggregating, controlling and analyzing quality data from geographically dispersed sources throughout the entire product life cycle. It can help a company quickly identify when a process or product doesn’t conform to desired specifications. It can also pinpoint supply chain bottlenecks and root causes of defects or product quality issues that chip away at perfection. With this knowledge, a company can make the changes necessary to enhance yields, lower costs, and maintain brand loyalty and customer satisfaction.

Quality software compiles disparate internal and external (e.g., third-party) data into a central framework to create a common, shared context that enables effective and collaborative decision making within a department or across an entire enterprise. With its ability to automate data collection, model the process dynamically, present actionable information and facilitate continuous improvements, quality software can contribute in many ways to the overall effectiveness of the DMAIC process. For example:

Define . Quality software helps companies identify and prioritize which processes to improve based on the cost of poor quality and other factors. It also provides documentation, enables collaboration and ensures consistency between suppliers and customers to avoid misunderstandings later in the process. Thanks to the software’s accurate documentation of requirements and collaboration, both suppliers and customers can key in to the important factors in the process. These can be flagged and appropriate dashboards created to monitor them.

Consider, for example, that one customer might be interested in monitoring the voltage for a particular output, while another might want to flag frequency. If these key parameters are identified early, customers are better able to tightly control them and meet their specific requirements.

Measure. Quality software helps identify and consolidate various data sources and supporting information used to understand and analyze a process. By compiling and analyzing disparate data, it also ensures accuracy and completeness. This can be an especially important capability for global manufacturing organizations.

Suppose that a manufacturer has a test that must be performed at various locations, including China and the United States. The equipment used to conduct the test at each site may differ, resulting in test anomalies caused by the difference in equipment rather than the product being tested. Because software can track all parameters, it can correlate the data obtained from both pieces of equipment and quickly identify any differences in the measurements. This helps the manufacturer understand if those discrepancies are a result of the equipment or the product being tested. Additionally, the software is able to capture pass/fail rates, yield and utilization per station, allowing the user to determine if there is a discrepancy between different test stations testing the same type of unit.

Analyze . Quality software can help to identify a defect’s cause and fully understand the effect it will have on overall quality. It does this by letting the user drill down to the root cause of a problem, identifying trends and the effects of engineering changes on product performance. When changes are made, it can track those changes and link them to specific problems that arise during manufacturing.

Improve . Quality software helps communicate results to other parts of the company and to external stakeholders. Using personalized dashboards, the software can provide actionable data that characterize all parameters of a process. This gives engineers a detailed view of the manufacturing process, as well as an overview of how well the process performs. Engineers can then use this information to improve both current and future designs.

Control. Quality software helps monitor new or improved processes to ensure that subsequent defects or deviations are identified, communicated and acted upon quickly. Alerts provide timely information to users about issues or problems within their control so that corrective action can be implemented immediately. When a problem caused by a component supplier occurs, for example, the relevant engineers and procurement department can be notified early enough in the manufacturing process to prevent field failures.

 

Another key aspect of quality software is that it’s a closed-loop system. In other words, it matches product performance to design requirements, such that if a component or system performs outside of the required specification, an engineer has the necessary documentation to control the process. In addition, quality software allows documented information to be acted on quickly.

Suppose, for example, that some piece of measurement equipment is set up to input data directly into the software. When a discrepancy is found, the software sends a command back to the equipment indicating what test changes must be made—in real time.

For reliable quality software to accomplish these goals it must demonstrate the following functionality:

Find and fix problems. The quality soft-
ware solution must aggregate parts or product data from various databases so that users can quickly learn the root causes of product defects—whether these are problems with the design, process or supplier—and gain other statistical knowledge about product performance trends.

Predict and avoid problems . The software should incorporate appropriate corrective actions into the supply chain and manufacturing processes so that the user can gain insight into predicting and avoiding future problems. It should correlate supplier quality, and design, test and genealogy data to create a profile of the product life cycle so as to create proactive, rather than reactive, service organizations.

Feed data into design and manufacturing to improve and innovate . The quality solution should allow all information—whether related to tracking and reporting return material authorizations (RMA), failures or corrective actions—to be fed back into the design and manufacturing process. Doing so allows the user to perform real-time analysis to identify potential trends and innovative ways in which the design can be improved.

Conclusion
To ensure process and product quality in a zero-tolerance world, companies must readily understand how their products are performing during the entire product life cycle and be able to react in real time when problems arise. They also must be able to easily and quickly provide this information throughout the enterprise.

Using a Web-based quality software solution that enables global teams to share product test and quality data offers one means of accomplishing that goal. Quality software is a key enabler in transforming Six Sigma from a methodology to real-world implementation.

About the authors
Nader Fathi is the chief executive officer of SigmaQuest, a leading provider of product performance intelligence software solutions (www.sigmaquest.com).

Al Alaverdi is vice president of technology of SigmaQuest.