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by Mary V. McAtee

A persistent malaise among quality professionals lately is the disagreeable sensation that something has snuck up from behind and mugged them. The economy has suddenly made off with staffs, budgets and customers, leaving quality managers nursing headaches while they scramble to recover.

 Unfortunately, their colleagues and ongoing responsibilities are rarely sympathetic or helpful. Quality managers must still maintain their companies' registrations and compliances--or maybe even achieve new ones. They're expected to provide salient, decision-making data quickly to ensure customer satisfaction and protect increasingly vulnerable market share. Frequently, and usually by means of laughable travel budgets, they must also oversee consistency of execution at their companies' various global locations. It's no wonder they tend to keep a generous supply of industrial-strength aspirin in their desk drawers.

 Short of an indefinite vacation somewhere in the South Pacific, the best cure for this post-millennium headache is probably an integrated, real-time, paperless quality management system. One approach to obtaining such a system is putting together a global-specification team and approaching your own information technology gurus to turn your dream system into a reality. Too often, though, you'll find that the same mugger got to them, leaving them with their own considerable bruises. A more realistic approach is to flip through any quality periodical (such as this one) and select from the dozens of turnkey systems featured or advertised. This solution is almost as easy as it sounds, provided you first spend some time evaluating both your organization's needs and the solutions offered by system suppliers.

Evaluating compliance systems

 There are sound, objective criteria your organization can use to evaluate and select the right paperless solution. In the past, the target market for turnkey compliance systems was organizations looking for an accepted framework for first-time registration. Indeed, a well-conceived compliance solution can trim months off most registrations.

 Now, however, we're seeing mature, registered global companies seeking solutions to realize and manage the returns they originally expected from their compliance and quality management systems. Following are essential features in any turnkey compliance solution:

  Capable content. Is the solution's technical content complete and accurate in addressing relevant quality and compliance requirements? Does it do so in a logical manner consistent with accepted industry "good quality" practices?

 For the end user, there's a huge difference, between a quality solution developed by software professionals and a software solution developed by quality professionals. Nothing can make up for the "been there, done that" experience that the latter can bring to a product. This factor is equally important in ensuring that solution providers understand and react to future changes in compliance standards in a reasonable and timely manner. To be sure, ask for the backgrounds of their subject-matter experts.

  Collaborative real-time data. Data in the solution should be as current as possible. The system should provide e-mail-based messaging that taps users on the shoulder and gives them both appropriate information and specific, relevant directions for action. Given our fast-paced, mobile world, this messaging system should work with pagers, cell phones and PDAs. Data access and entry capabilities should be expected from anywhere in the world at any time, whether it's a touch screen on the shop floor or a laptop in a hotel room; a solution that only exists on select desktops of technicians and managers is no true solution. All time-sensitive activities, such as pending document approvals, corrective action requests and customer complaints, should have configurable alerts, alarms and escalation that work within your company's messaging system.

  Ease of use and deployment. Installing, configuring and deploying the solution shouldn't be an excessively time-consuming project. Indeed, every business system requires planning, forethought and preparation before implementation, but you shouldn't be scratching your head a month into the timeline wondering when the "turnkey" part of the solution kicks in. Make sure that what's being touted as "flexibility" isn't, in reality, the software equivalent of "some assembly required." If supplier's implementation-support experts are going to have to visit your site so often that they qualify for your company's benefit plan, keep looking.

  Environmental administration. Managing the system in your company's information technology environment includes considering network topology, security, messaging, bandwidth, data storage, backup and disaster recovery. There could also be hidden--but necessary--project costs you hadn't considered, such as new or additional servers, upgrading client machines or other nonquality system issues. The solution provider should provide information and work with your IT group on these issues in advance of the purchase.

  Application administration. This includes planning the user community and incorporating the new system's functionality into your existing workflow and quality processes. You should be able to define your nomenclature, glossary of terms and template layout within the system. Time scales, security access, roles and responsibilities should be established and maintained without any special programming or computer skills. The software's user interface should be intuitive and easy to master and to navigate. Likewise, the "help" system should be logical, thorough, relevant for all skill levels and available electronically.

  Scalability. Global, multisite organizations should be able to leverage resources and production capacity by working collaboratively within the system on documents, shared-suppliers data, customer information, design engineering and quality-planning data. Various sites and business units should be able to call upon anyone in the enterprise, regardless of his or her physical location, to participate in a document or process workflow. Escalation time frames and responsible parties should be logical and configurable across the enterprise. System security should control data access and manage workflow participation within large groups of people in a sustainable manner. Time stamps, where useful, should reflect the date and time in a format that supports participation across various formats and time zones.

  Integration and compatibility. The system you select should work seamlessly with other applications, such as the Microsoft Office suite, various graphics and flowcharting tools, common enterprise resource planning programs and relational systems. No matter how functional the application seems on the surface, if it doesn't talk to or extract information from other business systems, the tasks of re-creating and maintaining redundant part-number, customer and supplier lists will stall the rollout effort.

  Executive summaries and reporting. Turning data into real-time information is one of the greatest benefits of a paperless system. The package should facilitate extracting and managing data, including graphs, charts and drill-down reporting. The reports should be user-defined and configurable. If the system you're considering offers a predefined data-reporting option, make sure it's not too limiting. Large organizations will likely want to place information from sites, divisions and corporate-level reports into an enterprisewide database application, such as Oracle.


Why paperless?

 Let's look at some of the criteria companies use to justify the significant outlay of money and resources needed to implement a companywide software system in these challenging economic times:

  Queue-time reduction. Electronic messaging and online access to documents drastically reduce the cycle time of approving and changing documents. It's not unusual to see completion times shrink to days from the weeks required by a paper process. When you combine the obvious benefits of real-time access to changes in work instructions and product and process information with the harder-to-measure reduction in both errors and shoddy quality, you're looking at serious savings.

  Alerts, alarms and escalation. The notorious power curve that many organizations speed into during the month before a surveillance audit is expensive and counterproductive. Playing catch-up on scheduled audits and long-overdue corrective actions is a huge drain on resources, and it brings into question the effectiveness of those systems within the organization. Can you really convince a prudent auditor that a customer complaint which remained open for 110 days but was finally closed within a week of the audit was taken seriously and pursued aggressively? How valued did that customer feel at day 50? How about day 75? Receiving system reminders and checking status views might not reduce your cycle time, but it will make management denial more difficult.

  Functional system integration. Having documentation, training, complaints, nonconforming-material handling, calibration and advanced product quality planning integrated into one system will permit data flow across documents and feed the output of one activity into the input of another. Internal-assessment findings will then feed into corrective actions, and document control can interface with and update training records. This reduces the need for staff involvement and ensures accurate information transfer between documents.

  Distributed responsibility and information access. Imagine no more phone calls requesting data or reports from various groups or individuals because that information is already available to all authorized users. Documents can be audited from anywhere. Ownership and responsibility can be shared across the organization so your system is a true quality management system, not just the system of the quality assurance department.

 Most paperless-system users find that large portions of their on-site registrar assessments occur in a conference room with verification of selected samples by direct interview. These surveillance audits are usually concluded faster and with fewer corrective actions than traditional paper audits.


Determining the best software supplier

 There are many good products and systems out there to choose from, most of which operate on different platforms and address various compliance standards. When you begin looking for a solution, do the following:

  Determine the particular needs of your organization.

  Make sure you listen to all of your potential users--from the shop floor to the executive suite.

  Identify a champion from senior management from the very start. Seek his or her advice on the best way to achieve corporate buy-in, and use your champion as a budgetary reality check.

  Create a spreadsheet of specific requirements for the suppliers you're considering. Many suppliers can provide you with one if you ask for their assistance.

  Make sure that you understand and budget for the hardware and system requirements of any potential solution.

  Ask suppliers hard questions about their service components, including training, support and consulting. Do their staffs have the experience and depth to support your organization for the long term? This support should include quality management experience, convenient locations and multilingual service providers.

  Demand to see the product in action. With the right screen shots, it's possible to make an Edsel look like a Rolls-Royce.

  Ask for and check suppliers' references from your industry.

  Verify suppliers' financial viability. You don't want to make a major investment in a technology that might disappear and leave you stranded.

  Trust your gut feelings about the suppliers and their products.


 Selecting and implementing a software system requires communication and service. It's very important that you're comfortable with the application and the supplier; much of your internal success will depend on both of them. In the long run, taking the time to research the right system for your organization will pay off with more than just cost savings. A paperless compliance system can free you to be the manager and technical resource you want to be, rather than the administrator and clerk you find yourself currently.


About the author

 Mary V. McAtee is director of implementation services for Quality Systems International, in Lexington, Massachusetts. E-mail her at .

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