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Quality Management Systems for the Production Employee

by Donald Cherry and Greg Gruska

Hey Joe," says one shop floor employee to another. "What's up with the computer?"

"Something new from management," Joe replies with a shrug. "Now they're going to monitor our work and find out who's been messing up. Can you believe it? What will they think of next?"

The first man shakes his head in disgust. "I wonder if they have one upstairs, too."

Sound familiar? Far too many companies use 21st-century technology to support a 19th-century management style. When implementing new quality software, top managers in manufacturing industries really needs to change the way it thinks about the production staff. Rather than view line personnel as simply cogs in the wheel, they need to arm and empower their employees to use up-to-date information to control quality.

Technology but no teamwork
Historically, shop floor production employees didn't have the tools, technology or authority to affect the quality of the processes that they ran and, therefore, the quality of the products produced. The management science approach to production, dominant since the early 1900s, held to the premise that the shop floor employee was part of the "machine" of industry and shouldn't be allowed to deviate from those work elements determined necessary by management. These organizations didn't understand, much less embrace, the idea that process and product quality can best be monitored and improved by the person who performs the work daily. Since the 1980s, this antiquated view of an organization as a machine has shifted; the trend now is to see the organization as a system. Along with this change, the role of the employee with- in the process has evolved from a purely physical one to that of a knowledge worker. A different set of information must be made available to this new breed of employee, and it should be presented in a timely and effective manner.

How does your company
stack up?

Take this test to see if you are engaging production workers in the quality process:

1) Do production operators really know what the quality objectives for their operations are?

2) Are these well documented and presented during meetings?

3) Are your production employees' input treated as valuable contributions to the organization?

4) Are you giving ample input to your production employees with regard to process improvement?

5) Do production employees get a say in implementing action plans and projects that improve product and process quality?


If the answers to these questions are "yes," then you're well on your way to including production employees as team members and important parts of the quality process. If not, it might be time to rethink your shop-floor approach.

In the past, organizations purchased software to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of plant floor operations. Among the hopes and desires of companies that purchased these programs was that computer-based quality systems, including SPC, would eliminate quality issues and reduce process variability. This is an admirable goal, but because these systems didn't engage the production employee in the quality process, their application often degenerated into the care and feeding of computers, or else the systems became expensive doorstops.

The new production and management systems
Walk into any U.S. manufacturing plant today, and there's a good chance you'll find an area where product quality is being inspected--sometimes multiple times--before the product is shipped to the customer. After much time and effort is put into manufacturing and/or assembling a product, the end result might not meet the original specifications. In some situations the product doesn't even meet the requirements of the next operation. Management must ask, "If we're using quality materials, and if we have consistent and acceptable process setups and execution, we should be building a quality product; so why isn't this happening?" All too often the conclusion is that the organization must turn to "new" technology for improvements.

In many cases, management purchases a new system and then forces it onto production without any input from the individuals who will be using the tool. In far too many instances, the implementation fails, and the company never gains the needed return on investment. Meanwhile, production employees remain cynical and disengaged.

Enter the era of the systems approach to process control. Systems today tie the quality management process to the production-line employee. They allow collaboration between the process operator and midlevel management. Such systems are user-friendly and provide the requisite information to make the employee's job easier, give management a snapshot of current operations, and support the continuous improvement of processes demanded by such standards as ISO 9001, ISO/TS 16949, AS9100 and others.

As a result, processes are efficient and effective. The Web-based tools that support these efforts are oriented toward helping employees take responsibility for their operations or processes. These tools provide shop floor management with the means to accomplish effective continual improvement and problem solving, and they offer employees and middle management an efficient way of communicating objectives and goals. As well as gaining the employees' confidence, these solutions help reduce the cost of end-of-line inspection.

An ideal system
To achieve these goals, a systems approach to process control should have the following attributes:

• Allow quality objectives and goals to be shared with production personnel

• Engage the production employee in the quality process

• Raise the production operator's understanding of the process as well as his or her effect on the rest of the production operation

• Provide a communication device rather than an after-the-fact reporting mechanism

• Link work instructions and other documentation imperative for performing specific job functions

• Provide integrated tools, including project management, action plans, operational improvement proposals and meeting management

• Allow for real-time, online communication of quality issues back to the production station responsible for them

• Identify the expectations of quality from either external or internal customers

• Provide a window into manufacturing processes based on specific opportunities for failure

• Allow for data collection on specific vendor part and/or component failures found at any step of the production process

• Improve data analysis for management by verifying which activities affect the overall success of the process

• Lead to data that support the failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) and control plan approach and documents

• Build a lessons-learned database for future data-mining activities


Required functionality
From a technical perspective, the optimum configuration would be a computer workstation or hand-held computer in each work cell and/or work group. These workstations would link to a server that includes a database and the production control system. This setup would provide access to information repositories for standard operating procedures, quality policy, work instructions and any other significant information required by shop floor personnel, including public-access points for online Internet access to controlled sites.

Video and audio files can be easily used to distribute current quality information to the shop floor. At a minimum, a company would need multiple workstations placed strategically on the shop floor and accessible by the team. Shop floor personnel then become the heart and soul of the system. They're responsible for data analysis and continuous improvement efforts based on management directives, production requirements and system feedback.

The shop floor and management teams are supported by a software application that includes the following capabilities:

• Meeting management

• Teams and champion assignment

• Electronic notification

• Shop floor access

• Data collection and aggregation

• Production-quality alerts

• Visual analysis tools

• Integration with other enterprise systems

• Problem solving

To support the quality process and continuous improvement effort, the shop floor team would use software-driven charts, such as Pareto and Paynter, to review quality indicators at weekly meetings. Hosted by the shop floor employees, these meetings would include access to and review of any of the automotive eight disciplines, corrective action reports, current projects, and stated goals and objectives.

Shop floor personnel would then have a large stake in the quality process. Although the management team would continue to drive objectives, the facts and issues would no longer be used as personnel scorecards but to further a supportive collaboration within the organization. The experience and knowledge once held by one employee could be documented and shared with others for the benefit of the quality process.

Soft-dollar improvement
W. Edwards Deming often referred to the "willing worker." In most situations the production employee wants to do a good job, but the process--i.e., the material, machines, methods and management--makes this difficult at best. This circumstance leads to employee disillusionment with the system and the organization.

It is management's responsibility to provide a system that will enable workers to be effective and efficient. (This is 93 percent of the problem, according to Deming.) Giving production employees the right tools and making them a key part of the quality process will provide many intangible benefits to the organization. As employees take more pride in their processes, they'll continually be improving and thus become more productive. Give them the right tools, and the resulting improvements can be exponential.

There are many advantages to implementing today's systems approach to process control. No longer just cogs in the wheel, production employees now have tools that give them the knowledge to improve product quality. Employees are now key parts of the continual improvement solution. Through their engagement, product quality gets better, processes improve in efficiency and a hard-dollar return on investment is possible.

That said, the chosen system must be easy enough for the production employee to use. Systems today have all sorts of functionality, but if the employee finds its use drudgery, it will never be successful.

About the authors
Donald Cherry is an executive sales professional and director of sales and marketing for Omnex Systems LLC. He's secured a broad range of technical software projects in multiple industries, including automotive, finance, insurance and health care. He also has managed key software implementations for a wide variety of organizations, including the Ford Motor Co., the University of Michigan and New York/New England Telephone.

Greg Gruska, a fellow of the American Society for Quality, is vice president of product development for Omnex Systems, a principal consultant in performance excellence and a Six Sigma Master Black Belt. Gruska is an active member of the QS-MSA and QS-SPC Manual subcommittees of the American Automotive Industry's Supplier Quality Requirements Task Force, which is part of the international task force governing ISO/TS 16949.