Quality at the source (QATS) has been used well before lean manufacturing became so popular. Many people in the quality function have applied the principles especially at critical work areas to detect nonconforming items and prevent them from moving forward in the process. If not given proper planning it can increase appraisal costs and disrupt material flow but as part of a lean initiative, QATS can produce dramatic quality improvements relatively quickly.

QATS is one of the building blocks of lean manufacturing concepts. It can be a powerful stand-alone effort that can produce significant results or it can be partly used in conjunction with a much larger lean initiative.

The basic assumption is that an organization doesn’t want to produce non-quality product at any work center. Although this sounds so ridiculously obvious, nearly everyone knows of situations where non-quality is produced at a work center. What’s also true is that most know of situations where the problem is allowed to continue by looking the other way in hopes that it goes undetected or is caught downstream before it is allowed to ship.

The solution isn’t complicated and can be surprisingly simple. If we want to prevent poor quality from causing more problems, increasing costs, and reaching customers, we can implement the techniques of QATS.

In its purest form QATS defines that quality output is not only measured at the end of the production line but at every step of the manufacturing process and being the responsibility of each individual who contributes to the production of on-time delivery of a product or service. Of course this would involve each person controlling their own work before the item is permitted to move to the next step in the process. If not part of a larger initiative it may be necessary, in time of crisis, to implement a series of redundant checks which can be very expensive.

There are simple techniques for QATS to work effectively. The following aren’t meant as a complete list nor are they intended to be in any order of importance:

No-fault forward. Organizations must create a culture when everyone embraces that nonconformances are detected at or very near the source. The focus is placed on the system and not the worker so people should be praised for ‘raising their hand’ when something is wrong.

Standardized work. Using the input from the worker level, document the work methods, materials, tools, etc., as a means to reduce variation in the process. Focus on the methods (system), not the output. If the methods are consistent so will the output.

Prepare the most important resource. The most important resource of any organization is their people. There should be an ongoing effort to improve overall skills and knowledge. Don’t just focus on what’s minimally important but expand to change the culture so that employees assume ownership. A multi-skilled workforce understands the customer’s intended use of the product or service and can provide support and help in different process steps.

Self-checks. Gages should be designed as simple as possible to measure the key parameters of the production output at the work stations. Workers should be trained and enabled to measure the output themselves. If there’s an issue, they should be encouraged to ‘raise the flag’ so the problem can be solved.

Successive checks. Especially with critical processes the downstream work station observes or measures the input coming to it. This can be as simple as looking for paint on heads of torqued bolts.

Mistake-proof. This could be the installation of an Andon light but you don’t necessarily need these lights. You only need a means of signaling that something’s wrong. A lathe operator’s machine had a costly ‘crash’ at least once a week due to undersize bores of a cylinder from an external supplier. A simple and inexpensive sensor was installed—crashes eliminated!

QATS can be a powerful tool, even without Andon lights (which can be effective and cost justified), and should not be ignored because you can’t stop to fix problems. Certainly, if processes are not in statistical control there may be short work stoppages needed to find and correct the root cause. These delays can be cause challenges due to production quotas but don’t let deadlines get in the way because the consequences can be devastating.

Implementing QATS will generate significant improvement in quality, cost and delivery. To capture improvement initiatives you must have a system to continuously evaluate the quality and make even further improvements. You may continue to see production stoppages, but it’s likely that they will be shorter that at the start of a QATS initiative. You will experience a constant improvement in quality and throughput which will be noticed by all including your customers.