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By all accounts, this year’s Quality Show at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, IL, saw record onsite and virtual attendee engagement. From speaking with multiple exhibitors and presenters, I consistently heard two emerging themes: increased exhibitor focus on the adoptions of digital transformation and automation, as focused parts of their overall continuous quality improvement strategies; and of the desire of a fair number of exhibiting and presenting companies to pursue a more holistic approach to quality.

One company that I know firsthand is actively staying ahead of both of these quality trends is the Racine, WI-based Reed Switch Developments Corp., also Quality’s 2023 Plant of the Year and presenters at The Quality Show. This week, I sat down with company president Debra Dahlin, and Engineering and QA Manager, Jeff Rosenbaum, to talk more about Reed Switch Developments Corp. and its holistic approach to quality.

Congratulationsagain on your Quality Plant of the Year Award! It's been a few months since we've last sat down. What's new these days at RSD?

Debra Dahlin (DD): Well, since our last update, we are having another exceptional year – sales are up 25% year-to-date!

Jeff Rosenbaum (JR): Truly, for us to be witnessing such a continued and measurable surge in new customer growth, and especially from the number of new prototype orders that we observe being placed through Digi-Key, McMaster Carr, and Amazon, it is not only an exciting time, but it also reaffirms our continued need to prioritize quality. That's why we remain so dedicated to diversifying our strategic sourcing of raw materials, zero-defect manufacturing, and ensuring on-time-to-promise deliveries. And, all the while, continuing to provide our existing customers with exceptional technical support.

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The Quality Plant of the Year Shares Insights at The Quality Show

Deb IafrateDebra Dahlin, is the second-generation owner and president of Reed Switch Developments Corp. (RSD). Under her leadership, RSD has grown steadily, despite a series of recessions, a global pandemic, and a major pivot from primarily standard parts into small-to-medium volume custom ones. Quality met with RSD at The Quality Show to learn what's new with the company.

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What do you believe makes Reed Switch Developments stand out among its peers in the area of quality?

DD: Hands down, I’d say that it starts with our self-awareness as an organization of our own strengths and areas for improvement. We place such great emphasis on ensuring that our own self-perceptions realistically align with the continuous external feedback that we receive from our customers.

So, by all accounts, I’d say that it’s our team’s holistic approach to quality that truly distinguishes us from our peers. Our positive, family-oriented, and quality-conscious organizational culture is everything to us. So, for us, our commitment to quality starts right in the new job candidate screening stage. We make certain to recruit and hire individuals who not only share in our values of personal and professional integrity, teamwork, proactivity, and strong work ethic, but also in our dedication to ongoing skills development and continuous quality improvement.

JR: Once a new candidate is hired, our primary goal is setting them up for success. That’s why each new hire undergoes an extensive 90-day in-house training and orientation process, during which we actively mentor and acclimate them to our in-house quality practices. We believe that each employee comes to work each day with a strong desire to excel in their role. We understand that quality issues naturally arise on the job, because, after all, we're human. We therefore strive to address those issues immediately, as they arise, without placing blame, and with integrity and purpose. Our focus from the point of any detected quality concern then shifts immediately toward evaluating the work processes leading up to any error, identifying the root causes for those errors, and taking swift corrective action. Working as a cohesive team.

For instance, did we miss a step in our documentation? Does a process require additional training? Is there a lack of clarity in our work instructions? Is better in-house tooling necessary? Is there an unknown supplier component quality issue? We encourage all employees to be active stakeholders in root cause analysis and corrective action. If we see something, we say something. We’ve found, over time, that eliminating the “blame game” increases employee confidence in proactively identifying issues as they arise, and also their willingness to embrace any necessary changes.

On the manufacturing side, we find that most customer order histories ultimately advance beyond the prototype stage, into custom designs that must meet customer exacting standards. This means that each new customer order will differ from one to the next. To help our team achieve zero-defect non-standard manufacturing, we establish a repeatable process for each job. We ensure that lean manufacturing and quality assurance guidelines, along with work instructions, are integrated into the process from conception through production. This ensures that each custom job has a future standard in-house manufacturing and quality assurance protocol in place by the time that order ships.

DD: Our repeat business metric is unusually high, as recent customer surveys have revealed, due to our consistently excellent product quality, competitive pricing, and excellent customer service.  So, in anticipation of continued ongoing repeat business, we make certain that future customer orders of custom products can be replicated with the same standard of quality as can be found within the very first order. What that meticulous attention to process documentation does is allow us to manufacture custom products in shorter lead times than can be found among many of today’s industry standards.

JR: We’ve always been a 100% U.S. based manufacturer. Each product is designed and assembled in-house. So, we know that, whenever an order is going out the door, we can account for each internal process step and can really take pride in the team effort that goes into every order.

DD: RSD embraces a culture of caring, whether that’s about ensuring a job well done, or supporting our customers, employees, and their families, or contributing to the communities in which we live and work. Over the years, we've realized that by recognizing employee accomplishments, rewarding exemplary character, and even by organizing external team charity and team-building events, our employees are more cohesive and quality-conscious. Our employee retention rates are also unusually high. By having employees with us for as many as 35 years, or more, we’ve found that we are able to truly ensure overall product quality, stabilize our manufacturing operations, and build continued industry confidence in our brand.

We also acknowledge that, as a business, we need a specific type of specialized global industry talent in order to take our business to the next level. Finding that specialized talent is challenging. Our approach to quality therefore also includes bringing in strategically outsourced fractional industry experts to fill in those specialized talent gaps. In your case, the longevity of our partnership and the industry-exclusivity by product technology type that we’ve enjoyed as your client have also provided us with a real competitive advantage.

So, overall, I would say that it was only once we began to take a more holistic view of quality, extending that across every possible facet of our business operations, that we began to observe real transformation taking place. That is what has brought us to where we are today, and what we strongly believe will sustain our business well into the future.

How does being a multi-generational family-owned small business influence this mindset?

DD: I am a second-generation owner. We have enjoyed 56 years of operation, with no signs of slowing down! For our family, it has never been solely about profits. It’s about creating a stable and family-oriented professional atmosphere, rooted in our own core values, where our employees can find a genuine sense of belonging, security, stability, and continuity. I take great pride in our culture and am dedicated to nurturing it. I've observed over time that, when we focus on developing people, processes, talent, and a holistic quality culture, our bottom-line growth follows organically.

How will digital transformation and automation influence your future quality management strategies?

JR: We believe that it will enhance staff ergonomics, streamline in-house process efficiencies, enable higher-volume production capabilities, and facilitate the greater standardization of custom product development processes.

What advice do you have for other plants looking at taking a more holistic approach to quality?

JR: Truly, it begins on a grassroots level, with ongoing collaborative employee dialogue. Leadership must be willing to listen, and open to learning, from those responsible for carrying out the actual work. We find that these  'frontline' employee insights are especially valuable, as they offer a uniquely in-depth understanding of the tasks.

DD: Employees should be actively encouraged, incentivized, and rewarded for contributing quality improvement ideas, particularly within their own job duties, processes, and work instructions. Introducing initiatives such as employee incentive programs, recognizing and rewarding employees for offering impactful ideas, can significantly enhance staff engagement and improve quality metrics.