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Five Ways to Boost Quality in Manufacturing Operations

March 19, 2013
Every production line experiences trouble from time to time, but recurring mistakes are inexcusable.

What should be a great time for global manufacturers has proven to be anything but. Production problems have caused trouble for many of the world’s largest and most successful companies, including Apple and Google. Both suffered “supply constraints” during the all-important holiday quarter.

The trouble has at least Apple joining a growing list to return a portion of their production work to North America. According to the Institute of Supply Management’s monthly index, U.S. production rose to 53.1 in January from 50.2 the month prior. Not since April has American manufacturing activity achieved such a fever pitch.

Canada enjoyed a much smaller gain over the same period, up just 10 basis points, but the implications are nevertheless the same: Lines are busier, and as a consequence, more likely to suffer errors. Stockpiling errors can lead to safety issues, which, as the situations at Apple and Google prove, can lead to expensive consequences.

Ensuring unimpeachable quality is the most important job a line manager has. Here are five ideas for producing at the highest levels:

  1. Reward success. There's a fine line between crushing creativity and reducing critical errors in the production line. Design a system that avoids punishing failure but instead rewards success in boosting output while also keeping a lid on serious issues. Seek a profitable balance and then incent employees to perform at that level, consistently.
  2. Measure team performance. Avoid assigning blame to a single employee when the line suffers trouble. Instead, measure team performance. Use shared destiny to encourage workers to watch each other's backs while striving for the greatest possible output, and then reward creatively when the team exceeds targets safely.
  3. Avoid the abstract. Don't shirk from trouble. Instead, if the line has suffered lapses in the past, make sure those stories are passed on to newer employees. Internalize the issues -- not for guilt's sake but that so everyone on the line takes the quest for safety as a personal mandate.
  4. Study peers and success stories. Encourage workers to learn from those who've come before. How are the safest lines maintained? What makes them so safe? If possible, bring in leaders of these operations to talk to your workers about process and lessons learned. Capture questions, answers, and ideas for regular review.
  5. Process over product. Don't let the quest for output obscure the need for safe procedures. Document safe processes meticulously so that newer workers avoid taking risks that might compromise their own or others' safety on the line -- or worse, upon delivery to the customer.

Manufacturing is a precise business that tolerates errors poorly, as Boeing appears to be finding out right now. Strike a balance on your line. Reward teams that find ways to creatively boost output without sacrificing safety. Reserve penalties for only the most serious errors.

And be mindful of history. Every production line experiences trouble from time to time, but recurring mistakes are inexcusable.

John Mills is executive vice president of Business Development at Rideau Recognition Solutions, a global leader in employee rewards and recognition programs designed to motivate and increase engagement and productivity across the workforce.

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