What Drives Product Quality?
Quality of products is imperative in just about any business, though its importance changes with a variety of factors. One of these is competition; in a more competitive industry, there is more pressure to create higher value by offering better quality at a given price point.
As much as we love quality, as much as we rely on it to move the products we create, we don’t always hit our goals. Specifically, defective products can have a detrimental effect on our own resources, on the end customer experience, or even both. This week, Saurabh Lal took to LinkedIn to share his post on product quality strategies. Lal was kind enough to not just list our problems, but also to give out a number of ideas for how quality can be better controlled.
Of course, just giving you the same information here isn’t very helpful, so this article is meant to serve two purposes. First, I’ll sift through which of the suggestions I think are most relevant and feasible for a business looking to bring down its defect rate. And two, we’ll take things deeper by exploring some of the driving factors behind product quality and take a look at how they interact.
The Drivers of Quality
Consumer Expectations – Nothing is more important with regards to the quality of your products than what your customer expects. Way down the line, someone in a store (or whatever your point of sale is) is expecting that you have created a product that they can use. Ultimately, Marketing 101 tells us that this is about a consumer making the determination that what you have to offer is worth more to them than the number of dollars you’re asking them to pay for it. Basically, making the customer feel like they got a good deal.
Perceived quality, then, is a major factor in how consumers valuate the products they browse.
Brand Positioning – Of course, brands will often market themselves to a certain demographic and, in some cases, the highest, ultimate quality isn’t actually the goal. If your brand is positioned to cater to those on a budget, consumers will expect to receive something less than the best but at a bargain price.
It’s worth noting, however, that this does not mean the product can not work (duh!). A good example of how quality changes with brand positioning could be products that come in both more permanent and disposable varieties (toothbrushes, plastic forks and knives vs. real cutlery); everything has its purpose of varying quality, but it’s still expected to function.
Your Expectations – As managers and QA professionals, you drive a number of direct factors that affect quality. For example, the machinery you use and the workers you employ have direct contact with your products, but it’s the way in which you manage these resources that will ultimately affect what you get out.
Much of this also comes down to priorities and budget; machines without the ability to be properly maintained are more likely to cause defective product runs, employees who haven’t had enough hours of dedicated training are more likely to make mistakes when demand/volume is high, etc.
External Controls & Inspections – I won’t get into this too much until we reach the actual “solutions” part of the article, but there are specific strategies for inspecting a process from the top down, the inside out, etc. The extent to which you make use of these techniques is also a major factor in the average quality of the products you eventually produce.
Things You Can Do To Improve Quality Assurance
Empower Those Closest to the Source – Management is great, but empowering those closest to the actual work being done to handle situations in real time is immensely valuable. Sometimes, providing the right tools and training to various line operators can actually be the difference between them even realizing a product is defective or not in the first place!
Even if a defect is caught, a worker without the right tools or training to correct the problem on-site means that time and energy will be wasted finding someone else who does.
Poke-Yokes – Poke Yoke is more than just a funny name, and Lal was smart to include it in his list of suggestions for overcoming defective variations. Poke-Yokes are basically mistake proofing techniques that I like to think of as “smart” barriers to defects before they happen.
Oftentimes, they are technical, and involve automatic shutoffs and the like on assembly line machines. That said, don’t limit yourself in this way; Poke-Yokes can also be implemented in worker training by teaching people certain devices and techniques to help limit their own chance of making a mistake. Limiting shift length/taking prescribed breaks, for example, might be a basic mistake proofing Poke-Yoke for a worker.
End-To-End Production Chain Inspections – For the most sweeping elimination of defect-causing factors in your production process, you can’t beat a fully, thorough inspection. Key to this strategy is sampling your products at every stage of production. The idea is that you can work from one end to the other, taking samples, and eventually you’ll find the spots with the highest likelihood of producing defective products.
Using these points, you can start to zero in on the individual factors in those areas that are causing a dip in quality. When doing this kind of inspection, you can start at the beginning or the end of your cycle. I’ve often seen it suggested that you start near the end and work backwards, but I personally recommend starting from the beginning.
If you start from the end of your cycle, you’ll hit a point with higher defect rates or more prominent quality control issues, but you won’t be sure where exactly those issues originate from until you work your way up the line. Eventually, the issues will lessen, and through trial and error you’ll find where you need to focus.
If you just start at the beginning, however, you’ll know you’re at the origin of an issue as soon as you hit it because everything upstream from it has already been checked. This doesn’t mean this is your only issue, but it means you’ll get to at least one of them quicker.
Root Cause Analysis – Of course, even if you can figure out where the problem is, that’s not the same as pinpointing what exactly it is. One of the most consistent problems in quality assurance is the risk of temporary fixes that fail to get to the bottom of your issues. In turn, these actions eventually loop back on themselves and you end up having to do things over and over again.
To avoid this, you should be always asking “why” until you virtually can’t ask it anymore, or until the answer is so ludicrously outside of your control that you have to dial it back a bit. Let’s get seasonal and use the example of a toy factory.
This toy factory is making dolls, but the dolls’ hair isn’t getting sewn on in the right place. At the hair station you notice that a sewing machine attachment is one incorrectly. You fix it, but a few days later the problem continues. When you go back, the piece is on wrong again! You realize your employee isn’t swapping attachments correctly. Going even further, you realize that their training didn’t explicitly explain how to do so. In turn, the root cause of your doll hair problem isn’t the machine, or even the employee, it’s the training they received.
Product Quality Overview
Quality control is an issue that often gets overcomplicated due to the use of poor techniques or the inability to step back and look at the big picture before trying to decide definitively what a problem is and how to fix it. Keep these things in mind, however, and you’re already halfway there.