By combining Lean Six Sigma and a top-200 customer focus, 3M improved its belt fabrication processes. The improvement team reduced defects in parts per million by a factor of 28 times as sales increased by 54%.

(Case study courtesy .) Seven years ago, leaders in 3M’s abrasives business saw that customer complaints were on the rise and belt failures were the no. 1 cause. The organization’s sales representatives were spending 40% of their time handling complaints instead of pursuing sales activities. Customers suffered and the organization lost sales, which limited business growth and financial objectives. As one vice president declared, it was time for a quality revolution.

About 3M and Coated Abrasives

3M was founded more than a century ago with a single technology-abrasives, often called sandpaper. Since then, the organization has grown into a $25 billion diversified technology giant, serving customers in six market-focused businesses. The abrasives division is part of the industrial and transportation business and provides innovative products such as tapes, adhesives, coatings, and abrasives for industrial and transportation customers. The organization’s coated abrasives come in many converted forms such as portable belts, back stand belts, utility sheets, cartridge rolls, utility shop rolls and more.

Setting the Stage for a Quality Revolution

As customers of 3M’s abrasives products provided feedback-frequently complaints-to the sales, customer service, and quality teams, the need for significant quality improvement was apparent. When the executive vice president of the industrial and transportation unit declared the need for a quality revolution, he noted, “To achieve our growth goals we need a step-change improvement in quality.” Strategic goals rolled down to every division, factory, and product line with annual targets. Soon thereafter, the abrasives division established the following goals:

  • Reduce defects in parts per million (DPPM) by 25% per year.
  • Trim total complaint resolution time by 15% per year.

    Specifically, the business unit initiated an improvement project to reduce belt DPPM from 12,000 to 500. To spearhead this work, the Abrasives Belt Fabrication Improvement Team was chartered in 2003.

    All participants on the team are ASQ members by virtue of 3M’s ASQ Site membership for its Maplewood, MN, facility. Joe Pribyl, the abrasives quality manager, served as a coach for the improvement team.

    The project worked to create value by providing more robust products that would perform better and longer to increase customers’ productivity. This coincides with 3M’s corporate goal: “Growth through customer success by building value for our customers.”

    Team members estimated that, if successful, the belt improvement project would have a positive impact on several goals, such as:

  • More robust products.
  • Reduced defects.
  • Better processes and product understanding.
  • Increased process capability.

  • Using a Two-Pronged Approach for Quality Improvement

    When a situational analysis confirmed that belt and splice complaints were the no. 1 quality complaint for industrial abrasives, the team developed a two-pronged approach to steer improvement:

  • Act immediately on the needs of 3M’s leading customers through a Top-200 program.
  • Drive long-term continuous improvement with Lean Six Sigma.

  • Identifying Potential Root Causes

    To pinpoint the root causes of belt complaints, the improvement team used process mapping, cause and effect diagrams, Pareto charts and other quality tools. For the Top-200 process, the team used basic graphing, data analysis and other communication tools to gather information from customers. Then, they began the Lean Six Sigma approach, attacking more chronic problems with the structured define, measure, analyze, improve, and control (DMAIC) model to identify possible factors causing variation in 3M’s products and processes.

    More details about the Data and data analysis were key in both the Top-200 and Lean Six Sigma improvement processes to help determine root causes and relationships. First, with the Top- 200, complaint and belt testing information was “sliced and diced” to support analysis and conversations with key customers about problems they experienced with belt products. 3M also established an extensive data collection system to gather data from raw materials, process information, finished product testing, and waste.

    Both internal and external stakeholders provided valuable input, as sales, technical service representatives, and end users supplied problem information and samples. For example, team members met with a Top-200 customer to complete a cause and effect matrix focusing on belt life and reasons why the belts could fail.

    Engaging customers in this type of partnering activity proved to be a powerful business tool for the organization; subsequently other business units have since replicated this approach. The final root causes and improvement path selection for the Top-200 process followed an investigative approach. The team used “Five Whys”, stakeholder dialogue, consensus and documentation. On the other hand, statistical software to generate trend charts, compare data sets, and calculate capability values guided the Lean Six Sigma path.

    Validating Final Root Causes

    With final root causes in hand, the team validated each cause. In the Top-200 program, the final causes centered around instructions, handling procedures, and application settings. These were validated through internal testing, audits, customer trials, and customer service visits. In the Lean Six Sigma process, final root causes focused on equipment capability, process control, and inadequate testing. Gauge repeatability and reproducibility (R&R) studies, equipment monitoring studies, and finished product testing were useful for validating the suspected causes.

    Developing Solutions

    Next, the team focused on possible solutions in the Top-200 process with brainstorming activities, experimentation, and sample testing. Possible solutions were developed somewhat intuitively, based on experience, speed, and cost of implementation. Data analysis came into play after problem samples were tested, allowing the team to compare them to historical information. In the Lean Six Sigma process, the team employed process mapping, cause and effect diagrams, and failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) for developing potential solutions to the belt issues. Team members used the FMEA tool after the first three phases of the DMAIC cycle to create a score or risk value for potential solutions-those with the highest scores earning the highest priority. Risk values were calculated based on severity, occurrence, and detection of the failure or variation in the process or product variable.

    The criteria for selecting final solutions were similar for the Top-200 and Lean Six Sigma approaches and included trial results, expected customer impact, speed and ease of change, as well as implementation costs. The team selected final solutions for the Top-200 by completing a customer resolution evaluation that involved reviewing complaints, samples, test results and customer feedback. These were documented in a Top-200 scorecard. For the Lean Six Sigma projects, the FMEA risk numbers were ranked and entered into Pareto charts. The team also used an old-fashioned “gut check” as members reviewed the lower-scoring variables and failure modes from the FMEA to ensure they had not overlooked any worthwhile solutions.

    Validating Solutions

    The most common solutions in the Top-200 process involved product specification changes, such as new splice tape or splice preparation condition. These solutions were validated internally with sample production and internal product testing. Externally, the solutions were verified by following up with customers after trial orders were shipped. On the other side, common solutions with Lean Six Sigma centered on process equipment modifications. The team validated these equipment changes internally through hypothesis testing, process capability measurement, and designed experiments. These experiments produced response surface plots and mathematical models that helped define process windows and targets, support troubleshooting, and provide training media for the team.

    Overcoming Resistance

    As with any process changes, the team did encounter some resistance. Internally, as the Top-200 process changes were introduced, resistance to the extra daily work required of operators surfaced. To help overcome this resistance, the team gathered stakeholder input on how to improve the Top-200 flyer, a bright yellow order form that travels with the material from station to station. After the order forms were modified and customer success stories were shared, the team quickly secured commitment and buy in.

    Reducing Defects Leads to Increased Sales

    Prior to implementing the final solutions, several modifications were necessary. For example, with the Top-200, changes were made to products and standards, special handling procedures such as using new splice tape, and operator training. On the Lean Six Sigma side, typical changes included equipment upgrades as well as process, product, and documentation updates. This team project created several positive intangible and tangible results.

    A key result of the Top-200 and Lean Six Sigma efforts is that 3M reduced its DPPM from 12,000 to just 475 in seven years. Not surprisingly, customer complaints dropped by 90% in the corresponding timeframe and the business realized the benefits of customer satisfaction, loyalty, and abrasives sales growth of 54% . By driving the bel ported the quality revolution by meeting defect reduction, cost of poor quality, and complaint response time goals.

    Sustaining the Results

    3M sustains the process changes through its ISO 9001 procedures, which require audits, documentation, quality metrics, corrective actions, and management reviews. The team developed extensive control plans for both Top-200 and Lean Six Sigma projects. These plans, along with documentation, audits, and frequent training, continue to sustain 3M’s quality improvements over time. Several quality and business metrics are charted and monitored through plant dashboards for any statistical shifts that may warrant attention. In addition, external and internal feedback data are gathered through satisfaction and loyalty surveys and monitored to ensure that changes are delivering the expected results and continue to align with the organization’s goals and strategies. Team members report that the Top-200 process is now a way of life at 3M. The organization follows up with all critical accounts by conducting a trial production order and a tech service customer visit to ensure that 3M products meet the customer’s requirements.

    Another benefit from this project was improved product and process understanding (PPU), notes Pribyl. He explains that PPU is the organization’s comprehensive quality improvement methodology linking voice of the customer data back through tests, product specifications, processes, procedures, and raw materials. “By truly understanding the science and technology behind our products and processes, we can control critical variables and deliver consistent products to our customers,” says Pribyl, an ASQ certified quality manager.

    Lessons Learned

    In addition to the improved PPU, Pribyl cites three important lessons learned from this team project:

  • Work directly with customers to understand how they use products.
  • Develop tests that predict performance.
  • Use data, not emotions, to make decisions.t defects to such low levels, the team project sup-ported the quality revolution by meeting defect reduction, cost of poor quality, and complaint response time goals.

  • For More Information

    Details on the International Team Excellence Award process are available at .

    To learn more about this project, contact Joe Pribyl

    Visit 3M’s website to learn more about the organization.

    Details on the benefits of ASQ organizational memberships are located .