Probing the Limits: Design Engineering: A Goldmine for Quality Improvement

January 1, 2003
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Moving the focus from manufacturing to engineering opens the doors for improvement.

If your quality system is focused more on manufacturing than engineering, you are probably missing opportunities for improvement.

Most quality departments are closely aligned with manufacturing but have poor ties to engineering—exactly opposite of what it should be. This misdeployment of quality resources causes organizations to miss opportunities for quality improvement.

In most companies, quality managers and quality technicians come from the manufacturing work force. Design engineers developing into quality managers and quality engineers are rare. That is a shame because the opportunity to deploy quality techniques in the design engineering area is so rich.

The reason that the well of opportunity in the design engineering area is so deep is because design quality sets the absolute maximum possible quality level for the product. To illustrate the concept of design quality, imagine a product that is manufactured perfectly, shipped perfectly and installed perfectly. This perfect product will still fail at some point when a quality design attribute has been pushed beyond its limits. A bearing may reach its rated life and fail, an in-spec tolerance stackup may cause premature failure or a bug in the controlling software may cause the product to fail. Stated simply, if manufacturing is perfect, the quality of the product is limited by the quality of the design.

If you are highly focused on reducing manufacturing defects, then you are limiting your efforts to just achieve the design quality of the product. If quality professionals were to focus on reducing design issues, then the opportunity for quality improvement becomes nearly infinite. Significant improvements in design can double product reliability. It is nearly impossible to get that type of reliability improvement by focusing on manufacturing issues.

Another reason I advocate shifting limited, finite quality resources away from manufacturing and toward engineering is because most engineering processes are immature relative to manufacturing processes. The deployment of quality techniques in companies is much greater in manufacturing than engineering.

To quantify the deployment of good development processes in software engineering projects, the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) conducts an annual survey. Last year’s SEI survey found that 40% of American software development processes were at the lowest level of maturity, described as, “Level 1—processes are usually ad hoc and chaotic.” My experience at previous companies has been that the vast majority of quality problems in complex products have design issues at their root cause. That is no surprise given the immature state of most design engineering processes.

Quality professionals do not look at design issues as major opportunities for quality improvement. Few quality professionals have design engineering training or experience, and it is intimidating to question something that you know little about. Design engineers have tremendous ownership of their work and often are not open to critique from an “unqualified” quality professional.

Another reason quality professionals are more manufacturing focused than design focused is because the great quality leaders emphasized manufacturing. Deming and Juran’s work focused on manufacturing with significantly less emphasis on engineering—and we are following their lead.

The last reason, I believe, is because engineering has somehow gained godlike status in many companies. As the quality manager at my company, I cringe when a quality inspector tells me, “Engineering said it would be OK to ship it like that,” and it is accepted without question. Engineers are often the most removed from customers, have the least at stake when products fail in the field, and are as prone to mistakes and poor judgment as anyone else. Why engineering has been given such un-checked power on quality issues, I do not yet understand.

During this slower economy, I think the quality profession is a great place to be if quality professionals can find the right places to contribute to their companies. Probably the biggest opportunity for quality and process improvement is in engineering. This is a great opportunity for quality professionals to provide a valuable service to their company. But to take advantage of that opportunity, quality professionals need to gain more design skills and learn more about quality techniques that are unique to design engineering.

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