In my very early days as an aeronautical engineer apprentice we were placed in virtually every department of the factory for short term (6 weeks to 6 months) familiarisation.
One of the coveted placements was Inspection because we had to wear a brown dust coat instead of blue overalls. Ah, the lure of prestige!
In addition we were placed at a surface table on the shop floor where mysterious metrological (thee science of measurement) equipment was used to check that components complied with the specification on the blueprint.
Some due to large quantities were sampled and some were inspected 100% but we were the final arbiter of whether a component or a batch could be built into an aircraft.
Looking back it was a very responsible job and I learnt a great deal about the depth of detail that was needed in order to produce a satisfactory outcome.
The process later became far more sophisticated using statistical methods such as 3-Sigma but in those early days we merely checked against specification.
All this derived from the very early days of, wouldn’t you believe, armament manufacture in the USA. At that time each gun was made individually and if a component failed then the whole thing failed.
In the 1860s some bright spark realised that this was a very inefficient method of manufacture and suggested that it would be better if components were all made the same and then if one failed it could be replaced.
This revolutionised large scale production systems because components were now interchangeable and the final product could be maintained and repaired, a significant cost saving.
In the process Inspection grew up and became Quality Control still in the hands of the customer to make sure that products were received as required.
Change became inevitable and eventually people realised that there would be more cost savings if suppliers guaranteed to supply compliant components rather than have to check them. This was the birth or evolution of Quality Assurance.
There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of the UK manufacturer who ordered a large batch of components from a Japanese manufacturer and specified the level of specification compliance at 99.8%. When the shipment arrived there was a bag with a small quantity of components that seemed to be extra.
When the customer queried the supplier they were told that “we only supply to specification but as you appeared to want some that didn’t comply we had to make them specially for you”.
Modern machining centres nowadays can be programmed to ensure that they produce only compliant components and that, for obvious reasons, makes the life of a high quality supplier much easier if rather more capital expensive.
However, quality is not merely a matter of the product. It covers everything about the business and I mean everything from the way that the telephone is answered, how many rings, the speed of action, the way that queries are handled and so on. Everything about the business.
Indeed there is a case for dropping the very word “quality” altogether and building a culture dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of the business.
I have posted recently about the brilliant way that Sainsbury’s home delivery drivers interact with the people to whom they deliver.
The quality of the product should be self evident and the customer always has the option of rejection if appropriate. The way that the drivers behave is a choice on the part of the company and the drivers and it is excellent.
A speaker at my Vistage CEO peer group once said:
“Aim to give service that builds a wall around the customer making it very difficult for them to move away from you”.
That encompasses the concept of total excellence.
It is a big picture that needs to be the top line of the business values and culture definition. Then the spectre of price competition fades into the background.
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