Quality Rules Apply to the Support Areas Also
By : H. James Harrington

I am sitting in a conference hall in Ixtapa, Mexico, listening to Denise Robitaille lecture on Corrective Action, Preventive Action, and Continuous Improvement. She is doing a five-hour workshop in the Neptune Room. The room is full of interested people, most of whom speak Spanish and she is lecturing in English, but everyone seems to be involved. She points out that 18% of product costs are related to rework. She has made a point of how important it is to create RCAs when product problems occur, how important it is to evaluate the defects and define the root cause, and then take corrective action to eliminate the possibilities of the defect reoccurring. She pointed out that having an excellent database is critical to all corrective action programs.

As she talks, I noted that her speech was directed at the product applications. To prepare a RCA, you needed a defect. I began to wonder what would happen if we applied the same, very systematic approach to the way we manage the total organization. What if we filled out a RCA every time an error occurred in all of the support areas, as well as the manufacturing areas? What if every time a person showed up to a meeting and had not completed the assigned task, a RCA was sent to his/her supervisor to define what action should be taken so he/she will never be late with another assignment? Robitaille points out that you can not answer a RCA stating it was an operator error. What would happen if every time a meeting started late, a RCA was sent to the person that scheduled the meeting and another RCA was sent to each person that came to the meeting late? And if the situation repeated itself, what if a RCA was sent to the individual’s manager so that manager could take action to prevent the problem from reoccurring? Now, this may seem to be ridiculous as all organizations would be overwhelmed with thousands of RCAs that would be difficult to prepare legitimate answers for.

In most organizations that I have worked with, the flood of RCAs would almost shut down the operation, but maybe that isn’t bad. Remember when we started the Just-In-Time approach – we likened the excess inventory to “excess water.” We talked about “lowering the water level” so that we could see the “boulders in the stream.” Each time we ran out of parts, the line came to a stop until the boulder was permanently removed. This approach leads to getting all the boulders (problems) out of the production flow.. Maybe it is time to lower the water level in the support areas so that the real problems can be identified and solved. This may be one of the best ways that we can focus upon improving our support processes. What if anyone came to a meeting late, we called off the meeting? All of a sudden the boulders in the support process would surface and get corrected.

Why is it so important to eliminate the errors from the production floor, but so unimportant to do the same in finance, engineering, personnel, IT, industrial engineering, etc.?

Why do we put in excellent measurement systems in manufacturing, but don’t even measure error rates in the service and support areas? Sure, we have KPIs in these areas, but they are only overall general measurements. How many of you quality managers have data that shows how many meetings your engineers come to late, were not prepared for, didn’t have their assignment done or missed entirely? How do you answer your second-level manager when he/she asks, “Why does John continue to come to meetings unprepared after you have already spoken to him?” Should the error rate of your managers, engineers and other support people be greater than those in the manufacturing departments? I believe that our support processes need to be as good as our production processes. If you, as the quality manager, are endorsing the Six Sigma program, shouldn’t you be performing at the six sigma level as well as requiring and measuring your employees to perform at a six sigma level? Maybe it is time for us to start writing requests for corrective action (RCAs) whenever the support personnel does not perform to requirements, for example, if he/she is more than 5 minutes late to a meeting, comes to a meeting unprepared, does not get an assignment completed on schedule, conducts an activity that costs more than originally estimated, etc.

Yes, I agree that in most organizations writing a RCA related to support and service organization errors would overwhelm with excessive paperwork and much additional workload. It would require management to step up and manage their employees, to understand their workload, to prepare them to do their work correctly and to help them do their job better, to be able to do better estimating, to have much better measurement systems, to develop better processes. Now is that all bad?