Tracking quality problems

April 9, 2020
Tracking quality problems
Quality should be one of the top priorities in any factory. No doubt everyone wants to have the best product that fits the client's requirements but, how easy is to secure the customer acceptance criteria? How can data be retrieved and digitalized in a factory floor full of papers? In a nutshell, how robust are these proofs in the event of a customer claim?
This specific tool is very special for me. First time I thought about this was in one of my first jobs as a quality engineer. Production manager was controlling the work of his people by using some quality sheets, and I was tasked to collect as much information as possible from those papers. To have a sense of the amount of work it was, by that time we were manufacturing 50 units per week, and each document had around 30 questions in total. Putting 1.500 lines of work in an Excel file can be absolutely boring, time-consuming and a massive waste of time.
After some days of repetitive tasks, I thought there must be a better way to do so. How can you automate such a time-consuming process? Answer, of course, was using tech. Digital check-lists using tablets came to my mind. This was the first time I suggested to my manager to include some kind of electronic devices in the factory for the workers. I showed him a super quick prototype of the app during a business trip to Milan and he was totally hooked by the idea. “This is now your new task. Enough for the papers” - he told me.
During the development phase, my only concern was getting meaningful data out of the factory. How could we be totally sure that the workers were following the procedures? If there is an agreement for specific customer requirements, forms are a fantastic place to check if those are completely fulfilled. We needed proof that every demand was implemented by the workers, even when the product had departed from our facilities. This was not an easy task and took us quite a lot of iterations between the points to be checked. The content inside the check-list is the most important part of this process. Every question you put in will be the starting point of the root cause analysis. Questions should add some value to the organization and should lead the problem assessment. For example, if in a car factory you don't normally have issues in the wheel assembly, it doesn't make sense to have almost 70% of the questions related to that task. However, if problems arise from the seats, you should create some questions like: version of the drawings used, measurements of the fixing points in the chassis, dynamic testing before passing to the next station, etc.
Taking advantage of the digital support, one could also use check-lists as some kind of quick work instructions. If the questions require a lot of explanation, a video can be used. Having said that, it is not useful to have such long check-lists for every unit you produce, as the quality inspector would need to take longer time for each check. There must be a trade-off between the length of the questionnaire and the quality of the points.
Once all the data is collected, you can perform your standard analysis. What are the most common failures? What are their root causes? Where is the station we should focus on? The logical next step after this analysis is creating a training program for those points where the majority of workers failed, but this is not always the case. Sometimes problems happen not because the worker doesn't want to do it right at first, but because some tools are missing, or drawings are not completely clear. It's tempting to blame the workers if there are customer claims, but many other departments are also indirectly involved in the manufacturing process, like sales, technical office, etc. Eventually, these simple digital forms were able to measure the temperature of the factory in real-time.
We had such great success that many other factories in the multinational copied this idea. Funny though, once they started using the check-lists, they also started judging more and more the questions used in the check-list. It's like if they didn't care about what was on the papers before but, suddenly, cared quite a lot about this new information. This has happened every single time I tried to implement the digital check-lists in every company.
How can you start using digital forms? The answer is very likely sitting on the palm of your hand. Chances are, you already have a Google account either for your Android smartphone or for your personal email. One of the products they have is Google Forms and it's pretty good for this specific task. Simple to use, robust and free. This is a very short example on how to get started.
What if you don't have the resources to put someone with a tablet checking all the units? Well, to be honest, I don't tend to believe in miracles. One thing is trying to get as much information as possible using the technology available these days...another completely different thing is thinking that you can somehow solve all your problems with an app. That is not going to happen. To get meaningful data, you need someone taking care of this.
What were the barriers I had to overcome? Not many to be honest. Since I was working for a multinational company, I had to take into account many IT issues - which usually are very strict in these types of companies - but after having addressed them, everything was just fine. As I've mentioned in many other posts, tablets got really cheap in those past years, so money wasn't a problem. In regards to the workers, everyone is used to playing with apps on their smartphones, or even have personal tablets at home, so that kind of “resistance to change” was not the case.
Is this effort any useful? I can't recommend it enough. The first return you get is a kind of shield against any customer claim. Let's say your customer calls and says there is no “X” accessory in the delivered package. One could just check the pictures taken and show the proof that it was indeed included. You will also be truly building a continuous improvement culture purely based on data. This is as powerful as it gets.
Is there any program apart from Google Forms? There are thousands out there, but all of them are some kind of variations of Google Forms - but more expensive. Of course there are some functionalities missing in forms, but given that it's free and available for everybody, I don't see many reasons to not give it a try.
Of course these forms can be used in many other areas of the organization. For example, they can be useful for surveying your customers, or for doing maintenance work, start-ups on site, etc. Possibilities are endless.