The question of how to “design in” quality is top of mind for many manufacturers. The most common way that companies currently ensure quality is through an inspection process: They sort the good products from the bad and only ship the good ones. The concept of designing in quality shifts the focus from defects to errors, from outputs to inputs, and from products to systems. The payoff is not just satisfied customers (with the concomitant opportunity for increased revenue) but also lower costs for businesses through increased efficiencies and reduced waste. As any Quality manager can tell you, the concept is simple in theory, but complicated in practice, which is why so many companies struggle to master it.
With a commitment to quality that dates back more than 30 years, Corning cares deeply about getting this right. Three years ago, we officially launched our “Product Quality Architecture” throughout the company. Although the initiative is still young, we’ve already achieved some significant milestones. The PQA helped us develop a new technology, build a new manufacturing line, and launch a brand-new product in less than a year to meet a request by a very demanding customer. We are also generating more than $50 million in annual cost-of-quality savings and believe we have the potential to quintuple that figure within the next few years.
We don’t have all the answers, but here are five key lessons we’ve learned that may help you on your own quality journey.
1. Successful execution starts with culture
New programs and mandates are a fact of life in most organizations. Employees can sometimes feel like they are being served the “flavor of the month.” For quality to thrive, it needs to become part of the culture. At Corning, quality is one of our seven core Values, so our people understand that it’s not just a program or function, it’s a way of doing things. Embedding quality in our culture creates pride of ownership, it encourages collaboration with colleagues who are working toward a common goal, and it makes it clear to employees that their work really matters. It also ensures that leadership remains committed to the effort even as other challenges and priorities arise.
2. You may need to step back to step forward
When we launched PQA, we were eager to dig into process improvements: Are our systems set up correctly? Are we running them appropriately? Do we need to modify any equipment? The biggest surprise was the discovery that there was still considerable room for improvement in terms of ensuring quality as an output. It’s not that we had problems. We were delivering great products, and our customer satisfaction was high. But Corning has multiple businesses and a lot of different technologies. Product designs have changed over the years, as have our customers’ needs and uses. We’ve also made a number of acquisitions that involve legacy processes. So we didn’t always have a recent definition of what high quality is. Before we started modifying any processes, we wanted to make absolutely sure we were taking the best care of our customers. We decided the first step should be to clearly define quality in a quantifiable way for each of our products and then certify them at this standard before exploring cost reductions or process improvements. This phase added a step to our roadmap that we didn’t originally anticipate and involved a significant investment of time and resources. But it was absolutely the right thing to do. It gives us additional opportunities to delight our customers and removes any ambiguity about what we’re working toward.
3. To pick the low-hanging fruit, you need to identify the right tree
It’s important to regularly ask yourself if you’re measuring what the customer cares about. In our Life Sciences business, we had a product that seemed to meet all the marks for quality. This particular item featured ridges in the design, which required several different molds to produce. But when we conducted a “voice of the customer” audit under PQA, our customers admitted they didn’t know why the ridges were there. Much to our surprise, they told us, “We don’t use them at all.” Clearly, something had changed since the original design, but our process continued to follow the old specs. Armed with this new information, we were able to eliminate an entire set of tooling processes.
4. Not everything should be error-free
Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Delay is preferable to error.” When it comes to innovation, that’s not always the case. We define “error free” as not only exceptional product quality, but also the most efficient process and the lowest manufacturing cost. In that regard, not everything should be error-free – at least not right away. This is especially true if you are launching new products or capturing new market opportunities. If a customer needs a new technology within a month, we will do everything necessary to get them the product they want with the attributes they desire at the quality they require – even if it means incurring additional costs or labor on our end. Once we meet a customer’s immediate needs, we shift our focus to streamlining our process. Similarly, sometimes supplying customers with product prototypes is the best way to meet their needs. For example, leading innovators often want “an initial level of quality” to do offline sampling before moving into line trials and commercial production. In this case, getting products into their hands at a developmental spec is not only acceptable, it is often preferable because it helps expedite their own process while we continue to fine-tune the product. Again, understanding your customers’ priorities is paramount and will help you make the right judgment.
5. Expect to keep going around the circle
It’s tempting to think that if you successfully design in quality, you can someday declare “mission accomplished.” But continuous improvement not only has no end, the path is not even linear. Unless your business is static (in which case it’s stagnating), there will always be a new product or extension. There will always be a new production line to ramp. There will always be new customers with new requirements. There may be an acquisition that brings new resources. Your vendors and raw materials may change. All of these things introduce new variables that can impact quality, which means you need to go through the improvement cycle again. Ultimately, quality is about how to deal with change in the most effective way.
That’s probably the best tip I can end on. Just like learning how to learn is one of the most important skills in life, learning how to adapt to change is half the battle when designing in quality.