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by Mike Richman

 

You’re one hour into your first day as the quality assurance manager for Conglomerate Manufacturing International Inc. You haven’t even set up your voicemail yet, and already you’ve got problems.

Your assistant informs you that the company’s new semiconductor fab plant in India consistently produces devices with 2 to 3 percent more nonconformities than your former plant in Indiana. The time difference between your office and the one in India doesn’t allow you to get to the heart of the problem by speaking with the plant manager in real time, so you fire off an e-mail asking for an explanation and possible solutions. Your assistant tells you that the Indian plant manager rarely answers e-mail; even when he does, he refuses to understand why good enough isn’t good enough. Meanwhile, supplier deliveries are irregularly scheduled and orders are haphazardly filled. You’ve got no way to accurately measure consumer satisfaction other than through sales figures, but your salespeople only want to concentrate on obtaining new customers, not surveying and placating old, disgruntled ones. Your boss, the director of operations, is harried, half-crazed and even more clueless than you are. When you scurry down to his office, begging for help, he screams, “That’s what I hired you for!” Don’t you just love challenges?

Welcome to the ultimate quality management nightmare. The scenario above is just a fantasy, a fairy tale gone horribly wrong. But who hasn’t been in a situation at least somewhat similar to this? Everyone has days when nothing goes right, and the lack of access to information makes everything seem even worse. Like all elements of business, quality management is essentially a human function. Processes and/or production systems tend to go wrong, and then, occasionally, they continue going wrong. For the managers saddled with the task of straightening out these systems, it sometimes appears that nonconformity builds on nonconformity, inefficiency upon inefficiency. The tidal wave carries us along as it crashes to the shore, and, as in the nightmare scenario just described, we want to cry out to someone--anyone--for help.


Generation next

Fortunately, help is available in the form of a new generation of enterprisewide software solutions that allow users such as Conglomerate Manufacturing’s newly hired QA manager to track quality processes throughout their companies, bringing in all elements of planning, production, conformance, documentation, workflow, corrective action, supplier management, finances, human resources and more, all in Web-enabled formats that allow for fast and easy access. With these systems, fears of undiscovered but potentially devastating errors or nonconformances are put to rest. These enterprisewide solutions are designed to track production or projects at any point along the process. That depth of knowledge and understanding are incredibly reassuring for quality managers.

Our world is one in which information technology has become decentralized. Today, anyone can retrieve almost any morsel of information, provided they have security clearance and access to the appropriate Internet “pipes.” With large multinational corporations outsourcing work with an almost missionary zeal, corporate colleagues all over the world need to be on the same page, especially when it comes to quality. Good quality equals better return on investments, which means greater success for enterprises. With enterprisewide quality management software, the bottom line is often the bottom line. In other words, even though these systems aren’t cheap to implement, they will almost always save money.

The demands of enterprisewide quality management systems will naturally depend upon the industry. An auto manufacturing company will have different requirements than one in health care services, just as a nonprofit fundraising group won’t need the same features as a government agency. However, all these organizations have one important common goal: the desire to achieve simple, efficient and repeatedly high levels of quality.

“The applications, objectives and issues within various industries are very similar,” says Robert Eames, product manager of StatSoft Inc. in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “What differs are the systems from which data are accessed and the details of the processes being improved. Otherwise, the applications are the same: connect and aggregate data from a variety of sources, provide streamlined access to data and analyses to a large group of users, design and implement standard reports for ongoing and efficient monitoring of key performance indicators, apply predictive modeling approaches to derive an understanding of root causes of product and process performance, and deploy predictive models for ongoing decision making and optimization.”


Powering up

The software that powers these solutions necessarily stands at the cutting edge of information technology. Scalable for thousands or even tens of thousands of users, modern, server-based quality assurance and management systems are fast, powerful and secure systems that link an enterprise’s various departments. Although such platforms differ greatly in their specifics from provider to provider, most offer modeling functions that go well beyond mere data crunching, failure analysis and corrective action. The name of the game now is to predict potential errors and/or nonconformities before products roll off assembly lines or prior to the adoption of standards or processes. The sophisticated modeling functionality offered by enterprisewide quality management solutions can actually alert managers to problems before they even occur.

“Five to 10 years ago, the industry focused on product recall and failure prevention. The focus now seems to be on delivering and supporting a product that will ultimately satisfy the customer,” reports Kevin North, executive vice president of Dyadem International Ltd. of Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada. “This is the main purpose of advanced product quality planning (APQP) and total quality management (TQM). With this shift, however, comes a shift in the functional requirements of quality management software. Before, software companies aimed to build a product that managed quality control within a production line or tracked failures at the component level. The real challenge now is in managing and linking all of product design, process, control plans and future design improvements in an application that is more mobile and accessible than an exhaustive product life cycle management system.”

Most of these platforms are designed to comply with industry-specific standards. They are also capable of incorporating an enterprise’s existing alphabet of databases, platform and systems, not only APQP and TQM, but also the following:

Material requirement planning (MRP)

Enterprise resource planning (ERP)

Supply chain management (SCM)

Total quality management (TQM)

Statistical process control (SPC)

 

Six Sigma processes can also be tailored to the unique requirements of the individual enterprise and built into the system. While many large enterprises already have platforms in place to handle these individual requirements, they could all be incorporated into the basic platform of the enterprisewide solution.

“Manufacturers find value in our ability to provide complete quality solutions by having one point of contact for support and system integration,” says Mark Roos, director of sales for ASI DataMyte of Plymouth, Minnesota. “For example, one of our customers, ThyssenKrupp Budd, uses our Inspect visual attribute data collection software running on ASI DataMyte 4000 wireless tablet computers to collect defect information in their stamping process. The pilot program has become such a success that they have begun to roll the system out corporatewide to all of their manufacturing facilities.”


On to the future

Enterprisewide quality management software is now thriving, but the future for these platforms is even more exciting. As bandwidth and connection speeds continue to grow, users can look forward to increasingly powerful applications that can elegantly perform even more elements of quality management at ever-faster speeds. Modeling functionality is growing in complexity, yielding systems that will anticipate potential trouble spots with even greater accuracy and depth. If the quality industry is ever to reach true zero-defect status, it will be these enterprisewise solutions that will lead the way.

“The future is continued growth and adoption. Organizations are quickly realizing that the road to capitalizing on their investments in data collection and storage are in enterprisewide analytics systems integrated with those data and deployed efficiently to knowledge workers who need to make informed decisions,” says StatSoft’s Eames.

“The future of quality management software will be driven by technology companies that understand industry policies and regulations and how quality management fits into a company’s corporate strategy,” comments North of Dyadem. “Quality management software makers must understand that quality management itself will migrate upwards within an organization to become part of corporate strategy, as today’s companies are competing in a more competitive international environment.”

Even more than most segments of industry, quality assurance relies on the tools of the trade to ensure success. All enterprises can stand to improve their processes and better serve their customers. Even Baldrige Award-winning organizations seek continual improvement. It’s what we do as quality professionals. Improvement is our reward, and success is the result.

With that understood, it’s clear that quality management software, as it’s used on an enterprisewide level, can positively affect not only our job performance, but our job satisfaction as well. Like the unfortunate quality assurance manager in our opening parable, many of us find that conforming to standards is easier said than done, particularly when the enterprise in question is a far-flung one. The frustration and anxiety over not knowing how a process or production is progressing can be devastating, not only to a company, but to the individual overseeing the job at hand. That’s perhaps the biggest benefit of a good enterprisewide quality management platform--the confidence that comes from knowing that the job being done is being done right. The multiple levels of conformance verification allowed by these systems truly puts the “assurance” in quality assurance.

With this in mind, let’s return to the scenario where you’re the newly hired QA manager for Conglomerate Manufacturing. Knowing what you now know about enterprisewide quality management software, you’re able to solve the problem with your nonconforming semiconductor devices and your unresponsive plant manager by installing a new platform that uses trending data to correctly predict where and when the critical fabrication flaw occurs. You can then document your findings and suggest an improved system to eliminate the flaw. Supplier management is also covered in your new platform; now, you can easily schedule deliveries and immediately hold your suppliers accountable for incomplete or inaccurate orders. Those that consistently fail to meet your standards can be removed from the supply chain, and you’ll have the data to support your decision with senior management. In terms of customer satisfaction, you have the ability not only to gauge sales but also to track returns and enter comments (negative as well as positive) coming back from salespeople. Now you’ve got the resources not only to understand how your semiconductor devices are performing but also how you can help your salespeople sell more. Your decision to integrate all of these systems in one easy-to-use enterprisewide quality management solution shows your boss exactly why he hired you--to make his life easier, and to make his bosses understand why they hired him. He gets a large bonus, and you get a great raise. Don’t you just love solutions?

Enterprisewide software platforms are changing the way quality is managed, for large and small enterprises alike. The ability to seamlessly anticipate trends, track conformance and organize workflows ruthlessly drives waste, inefficiency and hassles out of enterprises’ most important systems. Other key stakeholders (at least, those with the security clearance to do so) can see the process unfold in real time. They can help by checking for errors in their areas of responsibility and suggesting improvements that can add even more value to the process. In this organic way, systems, processes and even entire enterprises can change and improve--not always overnight, but certainly within a given period of time. It’s those changes--the ones that turn good organizations into great ones--that serve as the very best reasons to adopt enterprisewide quality management solutions.


About the author

Mike Richman is Quality Digest’s managing editor.