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Beware of Automation … and People
Ron Beltz – Bluestreak|Bright AM; Delafield, Wis.
If software automation or digital transformation goes too far, especially in job shops, it can annihilate your quality management.
Service-based manufacturing companies (heat treating, finishing, forging, etc.) are always looking for ways to improve their production processes through some type of digital transformation, or computer-based technology, and will try new things to streamline and improve operational efficiencies. That is all good.
Every company is on its own unique path. Even though two companies provide the same service and have the same type of equipment or machines, they might each go about it a totally different way. One might have extra operation steps embedded in their process and maybe the skill levels of their production staff differ dramatically in the various work centers throughout the plant.
Therein lies the problem – people.
Whether you’re talking about extensive building security or cybersecurity measures implemented, the weakest link is always the people. It is the same for the overall quality of each completed job; everything from receiving, work-order entry, specification requirements, inspections and shipping. Since individual people are involved in completing each of these steps, people can cut corners. They can eliminate key steps in a critical process; they can say they did something when they did not; and they can say they checked and verified something when they didn’t.
Please don’t take this the wrong way. People are your greatest asset, but software is also an important asset. If done properly it is not an expense. For too long, the cost of the right software has been on the wrong side of the ledger.
Now let’s talk about quality. Have you ever been in a meeting when one well-intentioned executive stated that a key company goal was higher quality? That sounds good if you’re just blowing smoke. The goal of the company has never been high quality. The goal is making more profit, now and in the future. Quality is a “necessary condition” for increasing business and profits.
In your quest to satisfy this “necessary condition,” make sure that your company is not just focused on looking for ways to make it easier for your shop-floor workforce – streamlining what they need to do as part of a specific job requirement, removing operational steps that they don’t feel are necessary or just simply speeding things up so you can get more work out the door in the same amount of time.
Because this “necessary condition” has sometimes taken precedence over everything else in the plant, some companies have made a choice to implement software on the production floor that can automatically track jobs on to the next step in processing just so an operator can reduce the number of clicks on a computer or eliminate the entry of any information about what they just did. After all, if the operations are not necessary to be tracked individually, then why were they even built into the process to begin with?
When this automatic job-step tracking occurs in the plant, the supposedly faster production and work-order management software is making some huge assumptions, namely:
- That the people did everything right and according to the specification requirements
- That the person actually doing the work was qualified to do it
- That the correct, qualified piece of equipment was used
- That the test results or quality inspections were all within acceptable ranges
- That there were no non-conformances associated with the job steps that were automatically tracked
- That the equipment (or personnel) performed perfectly
- That nothing was damaged during that particular step in production
- That the job was done in full compliance,
Key Questions that Need Answered
There are two questions of importance that need to be answered.
- Are fewer software clicks for your production staff important so you can get jobs done faster?
- Is quality management, individual accountability and preventing rework more important so jobs get done right the first time?
If you chose #1 ... By eliminating key quality checkpoints and sign-offs, your software is making a very risky assumption. It assumes that everything was done right on a particular job step and automatically passes the job on to the next operational step in your production process. You rely on your software to analyze and feed you information so you can better manage, so use it to reduce rework and increase profits.
Since people are involved, their inherent desire to cut as many corners as possible screams for continuous accountability. Without it, quality will suffer dramatically and rework and production costs will increase. Then unhappy customers and fewer orders will follow, and profits will take a dive. The right software will help with this required accountability while reducing rework.
You cannot cut corners if you want to be known for high quality and compliance. A wise heat-treating industry leader once said, “The best heat treating is done by the best heat treaters.” Quality software should be designed to help your most precious resource: quality-oriented people out on the floor. It should not be a crutch to enable warm bodies to get something done more quickly. An added benefit is that properly designed quality software will dramatically speed up and ease the conducting of audits.
Choose a software platform that gives you the flexibility to configure it the way your business functions; allows you to build in all the quality checks and sign-offs that are required for your internal and external auditors; manages to the right specification requirement; ties integrated quality management directly to individual operators on the production floor; tracks everything in real-time; automatically notifies a supervisor of certain triggering events; holds people accountable for what they do and does not allow them to do something that would cause the job to be done in a non-compliant way; and provides a complete and permanent audit trail of exactly what happened on each individual job step.
People are one of your biggest investments in both dollars and time. We all know there is a labor shortage, a lack of individuals with the right skills, and a challenge to keep the people you have hired and trained. When you’re training and mentoring your staff, think of the word “‘P-E-O-P-L-E” as an acronym: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical. Why not let your software take care of the “persuasion” piece right at the time the work is being done?
Poor quality has a cost and exceptional quality is free, so do it right the first time. Your people will feel much better about performing their job duties when they are not being blamed for production errors. The right software can help them tremendously. If you are using the right software in the right way, the savings alone will pay for the software and improve your profits. Your software needs to be one of your most important assets.