Manufacturers are only as good as their processes. Your organization is judged by the quality and volume of products that your processes produce. But you likely fight an ongoing battle to:

  • Reduce scrap, waste, defects, and rework
  • Improve product quality
  • Eliminate variation in processes
  • Maintain compliance with regulatory and customer requirements
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To address all of these issues, manufacturers turn to statistical process control (SPC) . Why? Because it just works, transforming operations across the enterprise. Of course, it’s generally not possible to tackle all your issues at the same time, so most manufacturers start using SPC where it will make a rapid and visible impact: reducing waste, defects, and rework.



When it comes to reining in your manufacturing operations, no matter what part of the process you’re talking about, you’ve got to measure it. What gets measured gets our attention. What doesn’t get measured is ignored.

Think about it this way: We all tend to clean the house when we’re expecting company. It’s only natural. You want to put on a good face. And we all love a clean house. When we know we’re being judged (or someone has an eye on us), our behaviors change…usually for the better.

Likewise in manufacturing, when we know something is being measured, we pay attention to it—and we start asking questions. Which brings me to toast points.


Toast Points

In food production, a toast point is a little brown toasty mark on a product—a tortilla, for example. When you see them, you know that the item has been lightly toasted. It adds a bit of flavor and it looks appealing through the clear wrapper. And here’s the kicker—these things are measured, sparking a variety of questions:

  • Are there enough toast points on the item?
  • Is there an ideal number of toast points?
  • What about size? How do I measure a toast point?
  • What happens if there are too many or too few?
  • Can I control the number?
  • Can I do something with toast points to differentiate my tortillas from my competition?
  • What systems can we put in place to ensure more ideal tortillas come off the line?
  • Do the ingredients, recipe, cooking equipment, or process set points make a difference?
  • Can I make more money by focusing on toast points?
  • And, finally, do toast points even matter?

For our example here, toast points represent all the fine details of your manufacturing process, whatever they may be. There are answers to all these questions, of course—but finding them requires something very important: data.


Data is the Key

Whenever I think of data, I think of statistical process control. SPC is driven by data and is the premier method for understanding the unknowns in your processes. Tackling broad topics like waste reduction, defect elimination, and rework avoidance requires focusing on those “toast points” in your operations.

You have to pay attention to the data.


Swimming Upstream

There are a thousand reasons why data is so important to SPC…and to your business. The most obvious one is money. Let’s start with the example of learning how to reduce defects in your product.

What is the most expensive way to find a defect? Finding out from the customer, of course—the flawed finished product! The product is sold, it’s “out there in the field,” and being used. And a consumer complains.

When a customer finds a problem with your product in the field, all sorts of data has to be collected to find out why and how that problem got out of your facility (and past your quality control system) and into someone’s hands. So, where do we start to look for the root of the problem? Upstream.

Where’s the least expensive place to find a problem? Right at the source. As a colleague once told me, “Fail early.” Makes sense in this context, right? You want to find your failures early in the manufacturing process, so you can fix them before they propagate and get out into the world.


Who’s Your Customer?

So, if you think of a product going through all of the steps in your manufacturing process, every step is a potential source of defects, right? The further upstream we catch them, the closer we get to the source that's creating them.

In my early years in manufacturing, we were taught the concept that every operation has a customer. Your customer is the person that's receiving whatever it is you're giving them—the next step in the process.

If you’re responsible for creating widget A in the manufacturing process, then the person who receives widget A from you, adds to it, and passes it on—that’s your customer. That person’s customer is at the next step in the process…and so on downstream.

To satisfy your customer and give them what they need, you must keep a close eye on all the steps in your manufacturing process. When you do that, your finished product will reflect that focused attention.


Even Then It’s Too Late

Even when you are watching details at every step, it’s still too late when you find a defect. Why? Because by then a defect can potentially be part of the process.

For example, say you’re the person doing the rough cut on a spindle, You make a hundred spindles and hand them off to someone to do the finished cut. And they find a defect.

That means you may potentially have to go back and rework or throw away all of the spindles in your batch. You need to find defects before you pass a hundred—or a thousand—pieces on to the next step. And the problem is compounded if the defect makes it through a number of steps in your process.

However, if during your rough-cut operation, you are checking for whatever it is that your customer (the next step in the manufacturing process) will be looking for, you are likely to catch any defects sooner. When you are measuring with your customer in mind, you reduce the waste, scrap, and rework that happens when you miss defects.

Waste, scrap, and rework—these are all just symptoms, by-products. What we’re really trying to do here is eliminate defects. Defects are the underlying disease.

And the best tool for eliminating defects is SPC.


Treat the Disease

To find the source of a defect, you have to ask the right questions. The data that you're gathering in your process will tell you what the questions need to be. Next, when you collect additional data to answer those questions, the new data will lead you to the next level of questions. And so on.

Data exposes the right questions to ask so that you can eliminate defects. When you start with these fundamental questions, you unlock the ability to transform your all your operations—one question at a time.

Learn how a leading seafood manufacturer reduced waste in their most important area: raw materials. Read the case study King & Prince Seafood—In-spec Processes: Upstream & Downstream.