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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: Is Quality Central or Peripheral to Lean?

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Sunday, April 11, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

The most stunning accomplishment of Toyota over the last fifty years is their turnaround from making “junk” to virtually redefining quality in the auto industry.  They were influenced to the core by W. Edwards Deming and quality is evident everywhere in the company.  The objective of the Toyota Production System is presented as Quality, cost, delivery, safety and morale and any metric board in Toyota will include quality indicators.

Every “lean consultant” or lean training course I know emphasizes quality.  In this sense I disagree with the questioner who claims lean focuses only on cost and efficiency.  On the other hand I am not aware of any lean training course or lean consultation that focuses on the details of building a complete quality system. There is a great deal to developing a world-class quality system and great quality departments do amazing work.  When we consider things like failure modes and effects analysis, quality-function deployment, statistical quality methods, reliability engineering, and more there is certainly much to learn and do.  So why are these detailed methods not taught in lean courses or focused on in lean engagements?

I admit to being one who has designed many lean courses at the University of Michigan and through my consulting practice and I have never taught a detailed course on quality methods.  We always mention quality and it comes through in the jidoka pillar.  In TPS we stop when there is a quality problem and the work group is responsible for containment and then root-cause problem solving.  Quality shows up in key performance indicators and as part of the hoshin kanri system.  Quality key points are integral to standardized work and job instruction training so each team member builds in quality.  At the engineering level we talk of front-end loading the design process so quality is designed in rather than fixed after the fact through engineering changes.  Know-how databases and tradeoff curves help to codify knowledge of quality issues so they can be avoided in the future.  The problem solving process we teach is very similar to 8D methods taught in quality programs.  So it is there, yet we are not really teaching in detail quality methods.

The question of where quality methods fit into lean is a good one and the question caused me to reflect on why we do not teach them in great detail. I have several answers:  1.  They are already taught and developed within quality departments.  2.  Our focus is heavily on the gemba and building these methods into daily routines.  3.  Too many executives see lean as a cost-reduction tool rather than a quality philosophy and method.  4.  Maybe we are in fact missing something.

1.  Quality departments already teach this.  In lean courses I have designed we often state that there are many quality methods outside of what we are teaching and they are absolutely essential…but we are not going to teach them.  In the early days of the quality revolution detailed several-week training programs were developed on quality methods.  They were rigorous and had an impact.  All the companies I can think of have that curriculum someplace and have quality departments with capabilities in those areas.

2.  We do our most important work at the gemba.  What we find is that the quality methods taught in the courses have not taken root at the gemba in a deep way.  They have identified critical quality parameters, engineering has some awareness, and procedures for checking quality are in place.  The quality department polices that and does a reasonable job, but quality is not built into every process.  Team members are often not well trained in how to do their jobs to avoid quality problems, let alone taught statistical quality methods in any great detail.  So we work on the quality issues as one of the issues when we work to  transform the gemba.  Defects are one of the seven wastes, but there are others we also focus on as we do our work.  The result is that we typically see improvement in quality even though we are not working on a quality initiative.  And in the best lean engagements quality becomes much more integrated into the work groups as a daily focus.

3.  Top executives often are focused on short-term cost reduction.  The reason I hear many companies starting the lean journey is that they are under intense cost pressure for one reason or another.  “We need to get lean to survive” is a common refrain it is usually refers to cost.  When we work on our first lean project  and show labor savings we are often pressured to intensively focus on return on investment which means more labor savings.  Most consultants I know face a moral dilemma between walking off the job if the senior executives have only a short-term cost reduction philosophy of lean and staying in the game to try to persuade them to change their thinking.

4.  Maybe we are missing something critical.  The reality is that we all know that quality systems ebb and flow.  They have their day in the sun as a major focus, good training is done, quality becomes a major priority, and then priorities shift.  In too many companies the great training and transformative efforts that occurred in the past have gotten watered down.   As lean experts should we be continually emphasizing quality?  Should we in fact better integrate basic quality methods into our courses and consulting?

We certainly need to be a constant voice for quality and I know many lean experts will insist on working on quality before jumping into flow methods.  The problem solving process, for example, Mike Rother’s concept of the improvement kata, is still the key to continuous quality improvement.   I believe the advantage we have in the lean area is to make quality a real part of daily work rather than an add on pushed by a staff organization.  As Toyota’s recall crisis indicates, repairing in quality is far more costly than building in quality.

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