Peter BigelowQuality is a must. Endless inspections are not.

I sometimes get this overwhelming feeling some things are heading backward. Some of that could be age, but regrettably there are times and situations decidedly not related to age, but highlighted by the experiences that have made me age.

Such is the trend currently taking place of customers who insist on verification and validation protocols that seem to accomplish only one thing: increasing the headcount at any and every company that supplies that verification and validation-gone-crazy customer.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for producing quality product. Earlier in my career I was with a company whose owner early on embraced TQM (Total Quality Management) and all that went with it. The lessons of Deming, Shingo and the concepts of Kaizen, FMEA, value stream mapping, poka-yoke, Kanban, and Lean became our obsession. The result: reducing staff by 25% – mostly by attrition – while increasing sales 30%, mostly via shorter lead times and better quality. Oh, and costs went down too, way down. Yes, two of our organization’s three goals were delivering quality on time. Third and most important, however, was delivering maximum value to customers so we could be more competitive and, therefore, secure increased levels of business from existing and new customers. Continually improving quality and service required an organization to be Lean, efficient, and to reduce unnecessary and non-value-add processes.

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Peter BigelowA frustrating implementation sheds new light on the value of personnel.

So what exactly is intellectual property?

Talking with an accountant is seldom a fun conversation, but I must admit that when our auditor stopped in for his periodic “kick the tires and see how things are going” meeting, the conversation did open my eyes. What started as a simple “have you invested in any assets this quarter?” morphed into a discussion about what really is value vs. just an asset.

The short answer to his question was, “Yes, we did indeed purchase some capital equipment.” My mistake was trying to anticipate his next question, which I presumed was going to be, “Then why have you not started depreciating it?” My cut-him-off-at-the-pass response was because we were going through a much-longer-than-anticipated learning-curve with the machine and had not put it online yet.

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Peter BigelowWhat you think may not be what you see.

Over the past couple months I have been in several discussions where the demise of the North American fabrication industry has been at the core of the various debates. While everyone in these exchanges was coming from different perspectives, ranging from technologist to financier to global consultant to marketer, and ranging in age from “young bucks” to seasoned retirees, the common thread of their thought process was fabrication as an industry in North America is dead or dying.

Various data points cited – accurate or subjectively interpreted – paint a bleak picture. The number of facilities is down to just over 200, with over half of those facilities under $5 million in revenue. New materials and supplies being commercially introduced are more often than not developed in and/or by Asian companies, and the reinvestment in capital equipment in North America pales in comparison to amounts spent everywhere else in the world. Yes, on the surface the picture is depressing – or is it?

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Peter BigelowQuality programs should ensure quality, not hamstring ingenuity.

From time to time, new terms take hold that sound critically important, become heavily, if not overly, used in business conversation, and often are both misleading and oxymoronic. Such is the case with the now frequently used “single point of failure.”

I do not think it’s possible to go through a facility or quality audit by a large customer where they are not searching for – and certainly identifying – what, in their opinion, is an unacceptable single point of failure. In my experience, the single point the auditor or customer identifies is usually neither more nor less critical than any other aspect of the process, is usually not a single point, and is usually not more than a process – or processes – the person who cites it does not understand.

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Peter BigelowSupply chain separation has made engineering a more expensive proposition.

Based on my sailing experience, I can say with certainty a chain, such as the one that anchors your boat to a secure mooring, is only as strong as its weakest link. In the intangible world of business, however, it can be difficult to see differences between “weaknesses” versus “just another way of looking at things.”

Such was the case recently during a meeting with a large customer – the type of very large customer where they have almost as many global facilities as they do egocentric engineering personalities – when an alleged strength revealed itself to be instead the weakest link in a very long chain. Around a large table sat engineering, manufacturing, and quality gurus revealing their latest, greatest project.

Discussion focused on the “elegant” simplicity, the utilization of the “best available new technology” and of course the “time critical” requirement that all suppliers had to perform to. This was quite the humdinger of a program I am sure was going to make – or break – more than a few careers of those present.

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Peter BilgelowAre you measuring customer service the right way?

April wasn’t a good month for United Airlines. Days after a video showing agents forcibly removing a screaming and bloodied doctor from an overbooked flight went viral, they bumped an engaged couple off an overbooked plane – on the way to their destination wedding.

Then came the flight where, allegedly, a scorpion was found roaming loose in the plane. Management, in PR triage, was certainly kept busy.

The airline business is a tough one. In many ways it is similar to the electronics industry. Much of the costs are “fixed”; significant and ongoing capital investment is required; capacity is constantly changing and rarely predictable, and competition is decreasing as relatively few large carriers vie for the majority of business globally. As tough as the airline business is, however, it appears United’s problems boil down to three simple root cause deficiencies. Those deficiencies cause problems not only for airlines, but for countless other businesses in a variety of industries, including, at times, ours.

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