Status quo is the enemy of quality assurance. ISO, AIAG, and IATF all require continuous improvement as a component of quality management systems. Still, it is a struggle to provide the ROI so company management can approve a quality capital expenditure. This is why it is vital that quality departments make room for quality improvements.

The room must be made in the schedule, the budget, and in the physical layout of the quality labs for continuous improvement. This article hopes to provide simple tips to help in this quest.

First things first, every quality department needs to acknowledge that "status quo" or keeping things the way they are is the enemy of quality. If 100% of time and resources are spent collecting and reporting quality data about product and processes, there is no room for continuous improvement. Also, if 100% of continuous improvement efforts are spent cutting cost and increasing throughput, the long-term effects on quality can be disastrous.

Let's pause for a quick test. Take 30 seconds to make a list of product recalls from the last 10 years. How many were triggered by the price of the product or the amount of inventory? How many were triggered by the failure to comply with safety or quality regulations? Continuous quality improvement could have and should have helped all the companies in question avoid a major recall or, in extreme cases, avoid bankruptcy.

There are at least three areas where making room for quality improvement is vital—and if you stick around I will give a bonus tip. Make room in the schedule, in the budget, and in the physical layout of the quality lab for continuous improvement.

Let’s start with your quality scheduling. As both a manufacturing and quality engineer, I have repeatedly seen quality departments are working overtime just to maintain the required level of data to be collected and analyzed. Every customer call and request for extra data triggers people working nights and weekends to generate reports and prepare for audits. I have spent many a weekend working prototype trials because there was never any open time during the week to perform the tests needed to satisfy the customer requirements. That meant everyone in the quality lab was also giving up their weekends. They wasted time writing down information, entering information into a database, double checking data for translation errors, trying to locate missing information, and re-running tests where data is suspect. If your department is already stretched thin, when do you make time to improve?

At the very least, 5 to 10% of your efforts should be spent looking for ways to improve your quality management system to free up time. If 100% of the department's schedule is spent maintaining existing conditions, you will not find the time to take advantage of new technology.

Second, the room must be made in your budget for quality improvements. Do you include scrap, rework, and repair percentages in your continuous improvement efforts? How about warranty and liability costs? What about lost opportunities because a better version of your product has been introduced by your competition? Also, what happens to the money saved by continuous improvement projects; does your company take the savings and run, or is a percentage of the savings reinvested in better quality assurance equipment?

Industry 4.0 will create a lot of opportunities for faster and more accurate quality assurance test equipment. If 100% of your budget is spent on the cheapest option to maintain what you have always done, how can you future-proof your business? Quality demands will continue to become more and more complicated and testing will become more rigorous as technology advances. I recommend using the 80/20 rule for continuous improvement efforts and also for reinvestment in quality equipment. Does the equipment you about to purchase reduce defects by 80%, does it pay for itself in less than a year? Can you reinvest 20% of the savings into future CI projects? If the answer to all three questions is "Yes," you have a winner. It is easier to build room into CI projects before they are completed than to try to find extra money for quality improvements after the budget is in place.

The third area where room must be made for continuous quality improvement is in the physical layout of your quality test labs. Is there a place where you can bring in new equipment for demonstrations and possible field tests? As a quality assurance manager, the opening question I ask before a demonstration is "Where can we set up some test equipment?" Also, will the equipment vendors partner with you to prove out their solutions? If so, where will this take place? Do you have the physical space to test their equipment and also have adequate areas to hold product benchmarked for testing and continuous improvement efforts?

Look at the quality lab's working area, what equipment is vital to day-to-day operations, and what equipment is just taking up space that could be better suited for validating possible new solutions. Is there any equipment that has not been used in the last month, or the last year? Is there a better place to store it, or can it be eliminated or outsourced? It takes physical space to run the design of experiments that can lead to quality breakthroughs.

Let's recap. Five to 10% of your scheduling should be used looking for ways to improve your quality management systems to save time. Also, 20% of your CI savings should be reinvested in future projects and new technologies. Moreover, space has to be allocated to field trial new equipment to ensure the return on investment will be realized.

Now, as a bonus tip, make room to ask quality personnel for their input. Create an ongoing suggestion program and a system of feedback and lessons learned that employees can utilize. Quality auditors and engineers should not fear change but foster it in an environment that improves products and processes. Make a safe space for quality improvements in your scheduling, in your budget, and in the physical layout of your test labs, and the suggestions will roll in.