Sunday, September 21, 2008

Making Process Adjustments and Quality Improvements

Have you ever encountered a situation where something has gone wrong and you wondered what could have been done to prevent it? Process adjustments and quality improvements can address this issue.

Process adjustments
Process adjustments may be corrective or preventive. Corrective adjustments are taken after a problem has already been discovered. Preventive adjustments are taken beforehand to prevent problems from happening.

Some of the most common process adjustments are: rework, redesign, change of equipment, change of personnel, and change of process. To prevent problems from occurring, each process is analyzed to determine where things could go wrong. Preventive steps or processes are then planned into the various activities.

In extreme cases, a process problem may demand rework. Rework requires that the production lot or phase of a project be redone. Obviously, rework should be avoided if possible. However, rework can be planned out conceptually by having inspections, testing, and measuring at logical points in the project or process. This minimizes rework, restricting its use to occasions of absolute necessity.

Another possibility is that a process needs to be redesigned. Projects often have an experimental or trial phase that tests the functioning of an item. This process needs to be planned so that the time exists for redesign, and redesign work is minimized, especially at later stages.

The problem may be the equipment. It could be worn out, outdated or unable to perform to the new designs or specifications demanded of it. Equipment upgrades can be planned into the project or process at various stages. This ensures that the machinery does not wear out and that it will meet future specifications.

Sometimes the problem is with a worker or supervisor. Many employees become bored with their jobs. A worker, supervisor or inspector may not be working as hard as they should be. Perhaps not enough training has been given to employees who need it. Personality conflicts may also be an issue.

Frequent rotation of workers may be desired. Properly scheduling breaks, work hours, vacation, and an understandable promotion system can make a work force more energetic. Refresher training reminds workers of quality issues.

On occasion the process itself may be flawed. Due to employee inexperience, a one-time modification of the process may be required. Plant layouts may need to be updated, efficiency studies undertaken, or adoption of higher forms of technology may be necessary. Annual audits help managers to identify the need for efficiency studies, increased automation, or changes to the process requiring more or less inspection, or testing as appropriate.

Quality Improvements
Quality improvement can occur in two manners. The first and most desirable way is through planned inspections, or audits, of a project or product process. The changes are enacted through a change request. The change request is based upon a well-reasoned and thought out analysis. Unplanned improvement can also occur through corrective action. Too much rework can result in an audit which then decides if a process or procedure needs changing. A change request initiates the improvement.

Both of these methods can address short- and long-term problems to a project or a production process. Consistent and constant attention to quality control is required to remind everyone that quality control can happen at any time.

No one person is solely responsible for quality control. All employees are responsible for identifying potential problems. It should not just be left to the inspectors or quality assurance department to ensure a process is being performed correctly. Interaction is necessary between all the stakeholders in a process or project. This involves the workers, managers, inspectors, engineers, and even the client. No one person can make a change without consideration of all possibilities.

One way to ensure smooth communications between all the stakeholders is to hold frequent meetings of all levels of personnel. This is termed a Quality Circle. Meetings are held frequently where concerns are brought up, ideas discussed, and new methods introduced. The idea is that everyone becomes aware of the others' positions and responsibilities on each issue. Quality improvement ideas are often discussed.

Workers can suggest changes to a process, calibration, or material. They see and do the process on a daily basis. Their suggestions are often preventive in nature. They are also the first line of defense in defect identification.

Managers are responsible for ensuring that the right activities occur at the right time. They can coordinate training, ensure workers and inspectors are doing their jobs, and coordinate with the engineers and clients about problems or changes.

Quality assurance and control is the function of the inspectors. Changes in procedures or processes can be initiated by them or discussion on new methods needed when a problem is identified. Whenever possible, they should act preventively.

Engineers or designers are often asked to study the technical aspects of a problem. They can also suggest the need for a change in process or design based upon new concepts, methods, or technology.

Ultimately, the manager is responsible for change. However, each employee is responsible for understanding the changes and for implementing them. They must also ensure that feedback is accurately conveyed. A progressive attitude by all is required.

Problem identification and resolution takes time. A group may need to meet several times to adjust the process and develop quality improvement ideas. Regardless, process adjustment and quality improvement must be thought of as a continuous process. There is always room for improvement, and prevention is always cheaper than correction.

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