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.

The truth is all processes – no matter how redundant and robust – could be considered a single point of failure as soon as humans get involved. Even the most highly educated, trained and dedicated person with the utmost attentive, observant and discerning personality can screw up. And regrettably, most of us in manufacturing have a mix of employees who might only aspire to such high standards.  Some companies may have separate facilities with repetitive capability, or may have multiple lines that perform the same tasks, but that in itself does not ensure a single point could not lead to failure.

Early in my career I worked for a major paper company. Now that’s an industry that has designed-in SPOF. A typical paper mill has a pulp mill that feeds one to several paper machines. Typically each machine can only produce one basic grade of paper at a time; producing another type of paper meant a lengthy shutdown for retooling. Back in the day (read: 1980s), a paper machine might run for 60 to 120 days straight (read 24/7) and during that run would produce, based on paper type, somewhere in the range of $20 million to $75 million in product. The pulp mill that fed the raw material into the paper machine was a SPOF, and the paper machine was also a SPOF. In that environment, customers and management did not even think about the concept of a SPOF, as it was the responsibility (read: job) of the facility manager and each and every team member to run the machine/mill without failure or an unplanned shutdown.

Today, concern over “what-if” problems is leading to over-engineering that, rather than reducing risk, may actually create more SPOF. One such example: the growing trend for customers to approve or seek a third-party certification of their suppliers’ manufacturing processes. My experience has been that while this trend may be well-intentioned, it often quickly morphs into the absurd.

For instance, a customer certified its product could be drilled only on a particular drill machine at one of its suppliers. “What if that machine is down?” the fabricator asked. The certifier’s response: “Then you fix the machine, of course!”  

Most fabrication facilities I have been in have several different drills – usually of different models, spindle numbers and manufacturers – all with the interchangeable capability of drilling. The fabricator’s reply to the certifier: “OK, that will negatively impact lead time, but if that’s the way you want it ….”

Drilling is just one of many processes in fabrication where a multitude of options is available for producing a given part. Ditto, outsourcing a process is not unheard of by fabricators when there is a capacity constraint, or the process is so specialized or with so little demand that an in-house investment is just not prudent. By limiting the options available for a supplier to pull from their manufacturing process toolbox, the customer may actually be creating numerous, unnecessary and riskier SPOFs than there otherwise would be.

Approving or certifying a “process” requires all parties to fully understand that process. Therein lies the rub. Most customers have no idea what goes into the processes their suppliers – the experts – use to produce quality, cost-effective product on-time. Scores of books have been written about Lean manufacturing that focus on having alternative processes available to improve overall throughput. A manufacturer’s ability to assess the mix of product going through its facility and then determine which ones, and when, will produce the highest yield and throughput is the very bedrock that differentiates world-class manufacturers from the rest. Yet, some of those alleged world-class manufacturers are leading the charge to approve or certify their suppliers’ individual processes, thus reducing their supply chain’s ability to be Lean, flexible and cost-effective.

Everyone wants to produce high-quality product, and every company has its fair share of SPOF. Rather than dwelling on potential failure points, it seems far more productive for companies – and their quality conscious management – to focus on having suppliers that can effectively flex their capabilities, so when – not if – a single point of failure appears, they have the people, skills and flexibility to do what is necessary to mitigate that single point and utilize an alternative process – or processes – in such a way that produces and delivers the quality product they have been entrusted to build the way they best know how to do so.

Micromanaging a supplier by approving or certifying processes the customer is not familiar with will ultimately hamstring their supply base and add unnecessary cost and time, thus defeating the purpose of the approval or certification.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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