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.

To accomplish such impressive goals, we focused on processes and departments that did not directly produce products. These processes were reviewed, analyzed and modified to reduce as many in-process inspections (and inspectors) as possible. Poka-yoke mapping of work flow was then followed by value stream mapping so all employees could identify more efficient methods. Final inspection was viewed as an audit function, not strictly a non-value-add function.

The goal was to touch product as few times as possible, and all employees involved strived to provide value-add to the process. As a result, the number of inspectors, as a percentage of all employees, dropped dramatically.

So what in the heck is compelling industry to go backward and hire more non-value-add staff?

In my little world, it seems the one department that keeps growing is Quality. I am not alone. The majority of conversations I have with colleagues from companies large and small involves the question, “Are you finding it as hard as I am to find inspectors?” It seems everyone is ramping their Quality departments. Regrettably, however, it is not because we all are seeing a spike in sales and volumes.

What is occurring is a trend started only a few short years ago. Customers are demanding more time-consuming verification and validation protocols from their supply base. These protocols include FAIs, CMM dimensional verification measurements, and the traditional host of certificates of conformance. In some cases, this level of verification may be needed. In most, however, the time, effort and, oh yes, resulting cost appear nothing less than a non-value-add waste of resources.

Equally, while a particular verification and validation step may be appropriate at any single given level of the end-product’s manufacturing process, when that inspection verification protocol is flowed down through the entire supply chain, the non-value-add effort exponentially multiplies, costing all involved resources and time wasting everyone’s money.

What had taken decades to refine into an efficient Quality organization and process that confirmed that product built met customer print has morphed into a quagmire that requires far more people, equipment and time to produce the same results. Manufacturers now need to add staff to perform a documentation function, as well as a measurement and review function.  Three distinct functions have grown out of one simple department! Talk about heading backward!

This trend would not be as difficult to stomach if elsewhere in the supply chain some value-add cost reductions could be identified to offset the inefficiency of increased verification and validation. I have yet to see any such offsetting efficiencies, however. Customers still inspect incoming product, but now also need additional staff to scan or input the verification and validation data supplied with that incoming product into their various quality systems. It seems industry has gone full circle from trying to Lean the non-value-add aspects out of the once-inefficient quality organizations, to trying to fatten-up those models of process efficiency to their former bloated state.

Good management basics scream the current trend of demanding overzealous protocols to confirm a product is built to print (as it has always been, and always should be) is accomplishing little, except to add complexity, cost and time to deliver product. Customers – industry – need to focus on delivering the most cost-effective quality product, rather than on having file servers full of irrelevant and unnecessary data points that reduce rather than add to the value proposition we provide customers and markets. Customers – industry – also need to understand that every dollar wasted on non-value-add verification protocols could be far better invested by all in new capability and technology.

Our entire supply chain should recall the hard lessons learned as we applied efficiency, process step reductions, and reasonable in-process metrics so Lean manufacturing high-quality, rapidly produced, cutting-edge electronics could be delivered cost-effectively. Those lessons all indicate the current trend in product verification and validation is leading us backward.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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