Probing the Limits: Are Quality Professionals No Longer Needed?

October 1, 2003
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Integrating quality into all functions is fundamental to building quality into products.

I conduct many plant tours each year and a common question from customers is, “Are your raw materials dock-to-stock?”

My answer usually goes something like this: “We are working with our suppliers, but we still don’t have suppliers that I’m willing to blindly trust to completely skip incoming QA. The cost of a field failure can be extraordinary, and it seems irresponsible to trust that nothing at my supplier’s factory will ever change. We always pull a small sample and do a quick check on material from even our best suppliers.”

What do you think of my answer? Some customers are relieved to hear that we still test the quality of our raw materials. Other customers think that I’m “old school” and not “with it” when it comes to progressive supply chain management.

Call me what you want, but I don’t want to be with it if it sacrifices quality.

Old school?

This specific issue is the heart of a fundamental debate within the quality profession. Many quality managers believe the quality profession is waning because its practitioners have succeeded in integrating quality into every function and, as a result, stand-alone quality professionals are no longer needed.

At the plant that I manage, we have been successful in building quality into the process and having quality checked by the people doing the operation as the products are built. While I’m proud of our highly effective quality system, I doubt I’ll ever eliminate the quality department.

Experience has taught me better.

At a previous job, the plant manager was convinced that the quality department was a dead-weight overhead expense, and the wave of the future would be to integrate quality into everyone’s job. He ordered that all line operators be trained to do the quality tests, and then he eliminated the QA department a month later. For two months after the department was eliminated, costs dropped, quality data was better and the program was considered a big success. The joy of success turned to misery when our customers began using the products made under the QA-less system. Customer complaints hit record levels and we spent months doing damage control. It was nearsighted for us to think we could hand over the responsibility for quality without any ongoing checking.

While I am in favor of integrating quality functions into everyone’s job, and holding everyone accountable for checking his own work, I’m opposed to the elimination of the quality department. Quality is too vital to not be checked and audited by internal inspectors. The concept of having an inspector check vital functions is critical in many parts of our work and personal lives. There is a huge difference between trusting someone and blindly trusting someone.

I’ve implemented new processes for many years, and one thing that experience has taught me is that the day you walk away from a new process, it starts to erode. People quit following the procedure, they take short cuts or the process becomes obsolete by business changes. The audit and inspection functions play a vital role in making sure that things are still running as they should be and the process is still effective.

I consider the incoming raw parts inspection function in my plant to be a critical audit function. The cost of a field failure or yield problems in the plant can be so high that it seems unthinkable to me to blindly trust that nothing has changed at any of my suppliers’ factories that might affect the quality of the raw parts they send me. Several times, I’ve witnessed my best supplier’s quality go off a cliff because of internal strife. I also think that it would be ignorant of me to think that our internal processes are so stable and well managed that a final inspection can be eliminated. Things change all the time and an incoming and final inspection role is critical to determine if quality is being maintained.

Send me an e-mail and let me know what you think. Is it the wave of the future to eliminate dedicated quality professionals and quality departments by completely integrating quality into everyone’s job, or is that just irresponsible and shortsighted?

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