Preparing Quality Improvement for the Future
Q uality alone will not ensure a successful future, as the classic story of the buggy-whip manufacturer demonstrates. His products were outstanding—better than any others—but when the market changed to automobiles, he found himself out of business.
Markets do indeed change, apparently at an increasing rate. Who would have predicted the diminished profits to be found in coal mining and its concomitant equipment? Or the changing conditions of written language, with pencils becoming nearly obsolete in the face of changing technologies?
Legacy technology can be a burden. Let's say, for example, that you have made a large investment in the equipment and tooling necessary to make your product the way you always have . If your team has done this over the course of decades, the possibility of a different approach can become more and more remote. The team is doing something they have honed and perfected over years. They do it so well that it has made the organization profitable. This positive reinforcement can be a blinder to potential new models; not just new ways to make the product, but entirely new systems that will allow your customers to meet their needs with less investment.
Five ways to anticipate improvement
So how does a manufacturer anticipate the process improvement efforts that will support the products and processes of the future?
First, by staying close to the manufacturing process and understanding the ways in which it undergoes improvement. This provides a sense of awareness of how that process fits the changing needs of customers.
Second, by recognizing the difference between customer wants and customer needs. A customer may want a 5-ft ladder; what that customer needs is something to provide the height necessary to complete a specific task.
Third, by keeping up with developments that may not seem relevant to your processes. A good example of this is 3D printing, which was once viewed primarily as a whimsical tool for hobbyists, science labs, and makers. Manufacturers such as Local Motors are beginning to discover wider applications of the technology that can save time and money, signaling greater demand in the future. Printed parts for autos may not be far in the future.
Fourth, by understanding variation in processes. Control charts and other statistical tools can be applied in constantly changing ways, as long as one really understands this potential. It is wise to heed the advice W. Edwards Deming, as quoted in Henry R. Neave's book, The Deming Dimension (SPC Press, 1990): "If I had to reduce my message for management to just a few words, I'd say it all had to do with reducing variation."
Finally, by watching the supply chain closely. Insisting that suppliers produce high-quality products allows opportunities for innovation to be uncovered and applied. Some of these emerging solutions may result in a new product line or the discovery of a new market.
Four tactics to employ
We recommend four tactics to address these concerns:
1. Foster an environment of curiosity; encourage questions and seek answers.
2. Set up regular visits to new and different types of manufacturing facilities.
3. Be open to ideas that appear to be out of left field.
4. Hold regular brainstorming meetings where your team tries to discover how many ways they can fill in the blanks or answer questions such as:
• If our customers had _____, they would not need what we make.
• If the cost of doing ______ could be cut by 90 percent, how would this affect us?
• If a new process could create X for pennies on the dollar, how would this affect our profits?
• If our largest, most profitable customer found a new supplier, how would this affect us?
We've seen the effect that big-box retailers often have on small businesses in towns across the country. In the same way, a single change in the marketplace—what if Caterpillar or Toyota or NASA suddenly develop a product similar to yours?—could be the death knell for certain products or services. Organizations must be alert to the possibility of such a change, and by anticipating it, ambush its negative effects on their operations.
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