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Operations: Want Better Quality? Bring Your Customers Aboard

Dec. 2, 2013
High levels of collaboration create a new partnership – the Qustomer.

What role do your customers play in the lifecycle of your manufactured product? Do they provide upfront input into the design phase and then disappear until a completed airplane, engine or batch of powdered detergent is ready for delivery? Is their interaction even less -- no contact until a completed assembly is ready for hand-off?

Either customer interaction is too little if outstanding quality is a goal, says the American Society for Quality. Indeed, the quality association promotes the requirement for high levels of customer engagement throughout the life cycle of an organization's activities. 

See Also: Operations Management Strategy & Best Practices

"This means directly integrating customers into these processes to collaborate at key points where quality is critical to overall success -- not just at the point of delivery," writes ASQ in one of a series of reports on results from its Global State of Quality Research project. (Initial research findings were released at the organization's annual conference earlier this year.)

ASQ has applied the term "Qustomer" to this partnership forged by organizations that increasingly integrate the quality process and the customer. "Through a series of deliberate contact points, the Qustomer is involved in product or service design, prototyping, production, supply chain planning, logistics development, and delivery processes. By putting the customer needs and input first, an organization can unlock additional customer value at various points in the life cycle," the Spotlight Report on the Qustomer report notes.  

Customer Collaboration at Airbus

ASQ's analysis shares several real-world examples of close customer collaboration, citing such companies as Airbus, Bombardier and ABF Freight System Inc. The American Productivity & Quality Center, a partner in the quality research effort, spoke with these and other organizations identified as having effectively engaged customers in their quality processes. All involve their customers in quality activities right from the start. 

For example, customer integration is significant at Airbus, says Thomas Joussen, an Airbus internal audit manager. It's a tight-knit collaboration that starts early in the development phase to create a customized aircraft, but it also extends well into a product's lifecycle. He notes in the ASQ report, "The customer is at the assembly line doing quality checks while the aircraft is assembled. For all the stages from beginning to end, they give quality checks and clearances." 

Further, Airbus continues to gather customer input via customer service and maintenance. 

See Also: Quality Disagreements

According to the quality research, which includes nearly 2,200 responses, about two-thirds, or 67.4%, of all respondents share quality performance to some degree with their customers. The Spotlight report says there exists "a delicate balance" between facilitating too much collaboration, which can be costly, and too little, which won't yield adequate information to improve quality. 

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