How to create built-in quality for your product

I would probably struggle to find any business where their product, service or software quality wouldn’t be important for their customers. In many businesses it’s most likely one of the key factor in the customer’s purchasing decision.

Since this is so important, we create quality control roles and even full departments to ensure the customer or regulatory standards are met. However, quality checks itself don’t provide any value to our customers. Therefore I believe we should always strive to have quality built in the processes so you can avoid rework or possible waste. 

But how can we do it and where should we start? Let me tell you a real example from my volunteering experience in rural Uganda, while working with a woman group who creates recycled paper beads.

Step 1: Identify customer or regulatory institutions quality requirements

When I saw the finished product in “Kasaana beads factory”, I immediately knew it will be difficult to sell in European and even local market. Why? The product quality is below par. Some beads were dirty, others contained too much varnish, the bracelet finishing knot was visible and other beads were just rolled in a weird shape. I realised that my first task should be to identify customer requirements and make the team aware of it.

We started to discuss the quality issues and some ladies tried to ensure me that it is good enough for the local market. Sure, this could be the case, but why are the current sales so low? The product is not that unique in the local market and I already observed some pretty big competition. Why would the local consumer buy a bracelet with dirty beads if they can get a clean one from a competitor?

I brought them a necklace from paper beads made by another group and shown them the quality. This bracelets’ beads were great, yet even they struggle with sales. Many women live pretty far away from a city or a main road, so it is understandable they struggle to know their competition.

Next day we started with a quality training on what is a good bead in the eyes of our customers. I took a few samples and gave them to each member of the group. We continued the discussion by  going through around 50 different beads and why a certain one is good, while another is not. We were doing it until I felt that ELMO needed to step in. 

It’s always a good idea to invite or at least interview customers and get a perspective on your product or service quality. What do they require? Maybe there are different requirements per segment? Taking this route we learnt that our customers will always choose the most visually appealing bracelet, free of dirt and not containing too much varnish.  

In the midst of quality training on what is a good bead in the eyes of our customers

Step 2: Identify abnormalities during a production process (Jidoka)

Jidoka is a Japanese word coming from Toyota manufacturing system, which means the ability to automatically detect abnormalities. If a bad part or condition is detected, the production process stops. This means bad parts are removed, because otherwise you continue to make poor quality parts. In the end jidoka is great to highlight problems and enable continuous improvement for your processes. 

In our case, unfortunately, we don’t have any automated systems to give us a sign of a bad quality bead during production. But at least we can detect those issues with the help of our women working in the production process. 

For example, many beads get dirty during the rolling process or after they are placed in unclean storage containers. This means that whenever we notice a dirty bead during the collecting process, we stop the production process. The women need to wash their hands again or clean the storage container. There is no point to move it to the next process stage, such as varnish.

Most of the storage containers were dirty thus we did a clean up exercise for all of them.

Step 3: Build an environment to avoid errors (poka-yoke)

Another Japanese word “Poka-yoke”, which translates to mistake proofing. In other words; you help a production operator to avoid errors during their work. Humans are not machines and mistakes can happen, so managers need to create an environment which prevents errors as much as possible.

You can find various poka-yoke examples in your daily life and my favourite ones can be found in cars. For example, if you don’t fasten your seat belt, you will hear an alarm beeping. The same happens if your door isn’t closed while the engine is running. 

In rural Uganda water is scarce and there is no tap around, but we have put a lot of effort to bring a jar can of water near the workplace entrance. This way each time before the women start working, they can easily wash their hands. We have also installed a human alarm if someone sees their peer working with dirty hands. 😊

We noticed that some beads were too narrow to put it on a wire for varnishing thus considered it as a bad part. We have therefore introduced standardized sticks which are now used to roll the beads to avoid them ending up too narrow. 

It’s so nice to see a high quality clutch which is named “Ugandan News”.

Step 4: Continuously improve!

Even though it might sound very difficult to have 100% quality production, I would say never give up. Every small kaizen/ improvement can lead to huge results, as long as you don’t stop looking for opportunities to do things better.

After we fixed the dirty beads issue, we still had many quality concerns after varnishing. Each day we were trying out different methods and tools. For example, we noticed that while hanging out wet beads, they tend to touch each other thus resulting in a bad part. We started to use pegs to hang them which avoids the touching. Voila! Less bad beads during the varnishing process. 

For me being humble and learning from others is very important. We need to always seek for inspiration from other industries, customers, partners or suppliers. I am very proud that we have reached out to another women group who make similar recycled paper beads jewellery. Inspired by them we learnt about another way of varnishing, which has helped us to reduce bad beads.

In the end, whatever way works for you is great, as long as you continuously improve.

Wet beads were often touching each other thus resulting in a bad part.

Step 5: Last but not least, don’t underestimate new joiner on-boarding 

You have done all this great work, you are celebrating your success and business life is going great. Now it is important to stay sharp! If not, you might fall back to your old habits and results will follow the same route; back to poor. Therefore sustainability of your improvements is crucial here more than ever. How? A good poke-yoke will help a lot, but also constant attention to your people.

You might want to create a skills matrix to have an overview who has been trained on what and when. Nobody will be ever be hurt if you refresh the training from time to time. Let’s get some inspiration from the best hotel I have ever stayed at during my great Philips days, Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. They have received five-star award from Forbes Travel for 53 years consecutively. There are obviously many factors which influence their success but for me it’s remarkable how much effort they put into training their staff. 

Last week we had a few new joiners. They were excited to jump into the production process right away, but  instead they were introduced with customer requirements awareness training followed on how to make the recycled paper beads. 

Never ever underestimate the importance of new joiner on-boarding. And I would say don’t be greedy while allocating time for this.

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