Welcome to my blog for all things related to business quality (processes, systems and ways of working), products and product quality, manufacturing and operations management.

This blog is a mixture of real-world experience, ideas, comments and observations that I hope you'll find interesting.



Hong Kong and Shenzhen


I’ve just returned from a very interesting visit to a Contract Electronics Manufacturer in Shenzhen, China. Many of the things I have blogged about recently were clearly demonstrated including rigorous application of the 5S methodology along with good SPC and TQM, and we were made very welcome.

We had an interesting demonstration of Hawthorne and Heisenberg in practice, though – we were investigating the root cause for some settings of some products occasionally having errors. Product configuration is a manual process, and the instructions up on the wall next to the test station were flawed – there was a minor error in the document which the operators knew about and corrected as they entered the data. However, we have occasionally seen products with that specific parameter set incorrectly; unsurprisingly, despite their thoroughness a small number or errors do occur.

However, a different error appeared when the final tests were done; one product exhibited a new type of fault. When we pushed for the root cause, the operator admitted that he was nervous because of our presence and made a mistake.

It was fascinating to see Hawthorne and Heisenberg demonstrated so clearly; as ‘experimenters’ we were directly affecting the experiment; had we not been there he would not have been nervous and the results would have been different.

The fix for both types of error was to correct the instructions then automate the process so the operator was taken out of the loop; the configuration settings are now made via software so it doesn’t matter if operators are nervous in the presence of visitors or not!

Is the Hawthorne Effect really just Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for the common man?

The Hawthorne Effect was first described by psychology researcher Henry Landsberger in the fifties when he analysed work done decades earlier at Western Electric’s Hawthorn Works near Chicago.

Western Electric ran a study to see if its workers would become more productive if the light levels were raised. This did indeed happen, there was a significant increase in productivity when the lighting in the workplace was made brighter, even if only a little bit brighter, although after some time productivity gradually dropped again.

So the experimenters reduced the light levels again by the same amount they had originally put them up.

I suspect you’re ahead of me on this one… when the light levels were reduced the productivity went up again!

This has become known as the Hawthorne Effect – people who are being studied improve their performance simply because they are being studied; someone is measuring them, assessing them, taking an interest in them, or otherwise giving them unusual attention, and it makes them change their behaviour.

It’s a bit like driving a car when a policeman is following you – you become really careful and precise in your use of the mirror, indicators, lane discipline, and so on!

The Hawthorne Effect doesn’t just apply to lighting; far from it. It applies to many changes or initiatives such as improved cleanliness or workplace layout (5S), new working methods and processes, changed organisational structures, training and development, TQM programmes, and a host of other things that management does to try to improve productivity.

So why do I mention Heisenberg?

In quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle explains how certain pairs of physical properties of subatomic particles cannot be known at the same time. So, for instance, if you know an electron’s position you can’t know its velocity and vice versa. Some scientists say this is a fundamental characteristic of nature, it simply isn’t possible to know both things at the same time; this is where quantum mechanics becomes rather surreal for the layman!

However, for others scientists it is more an indication of the effect that the experimenter has on the experiment – the act of measuring velocity means that you destroy the information about its position, and if you do an experiment that determines the electron’s position at a moment in time then the information about its velocity is lost.

In other words, the observers contaminate the experiment; their presence affects the outcome. That is what happens with the Hawthorne Effect.

It also has a something in common with the Placebo Effect in which, if a patient simply believes they are receiving a certain type of medication or treatment, their medical conditions improve, even if the medication or treatment is a dummy that can be shown to have no effect on the condition being treated.

So what does all this have to do with your management or quality improvement initiatives? Well, it means that you may want to adopt a sceptical attitude towards your results.

You should be making changes and evaluating the result as part of your philosophy of Continuous Improvement but, when you do so, ask yourself if the improvements are not so much because of what you have done, but simply that you have done something.

Keep an eye on those results; if they drop back when you stop paying them as much attention, you may be experiencing the Hawthorne Effect.

The late Sir John Harvey-Jones said “Management is not about the preservation of the status quo. It is about maintaining the highest rate of change that the organisation and the people within it can stand”. Maybe one benefit of this potentially disruptive strategy is that you ride the wave of the Hawthorne Effect; if people are frequently having the right sort of attention given to them, they may raise their performance to match.

Who cares if it’s the Placebo Effect or the common man’s manifestation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, an improvement is an improvement!

5S is more than just spring cleaning

5S stands for Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke. And, by the way, despite being called 5S many people say there’s a 6th – Safety.

Well, I’m glad to have cleared that up!

Perhaps I had better explain… You have probably deduced that 5S is another Japanese-inspired approach to quality improvement; in this case it’s all about organising the workplace to be clean, tidy, efficient and safe, whether this be on the factory floor or in the office or elsewhere. This doesn’t just have financial and safety benefits but can significantly improve the sense of ownership and morale of the workforce.

The 5 S’s are Japanese words that break the process into 5 stages. It’s difficult to exactly match the Japanese stages to five English words that also start with S so, as with Kaizen and Poka-yoke, many English-speakers stay with the Japanese words. However, if you feel a desperate need to Westernise it you could try Seiri = Sort, Seiton = Set in Order (Simplify, Straighten), Seiso = Sweep (Shine), Seiketsu = Standardise, Shitsuke = Sustain… and Safety (which is self-evident).

The concept of 5S is to arrange items or activities in such a way that the flow of work is simpler, easier and more efficient. For example, workstations, desks or benches are made clean and tidy and everything needed to do the work is made easy to find, tools are placed at the point where they are used and in a way that makes them instantly available (e.g. via shadow boards or tool holders), layout of the work is arranged to avoid staff having to bend or move excessively to get at materials or tools, problems become easier to see, work processes are standardised to reduce wasted effort or wasted materials, and so on.

As a result of the tidier working space and easier to use layout, safety is improved; the sixth S is really a consequence of the first five.

This is how the five stages work:

1. Seiri tidiness; eliminate unnecessary items

Go through the entire workplace and remove everything that isn’t wanted, used and essential to the work being done. Keep only the bare minimum and avoid ‘Just In Case’ syndrome.

2. Seiton – orderliness, find a place for everything

Set in Order; put everything in a specific, assigned place so it can be retrieved quickly and easily. Make the workflow smooth and efficient. Arrange storage where it’s required and use tool holders, shadow boards, labelling and other methods to identify where tools or other items should be kept easily to hand (and to show if they are missing).

3. Seiso – shine or clean regularly

Arrange for systematic, regular cleaning of the work area and keep it clean when you are using it; this applies to the office (how about having a clean desk policy, for instance?) just as much as to the shop floor.

4. Seiketsu – standardise the way that work is done

This stage is all about making the previous three stages stick. Standardise what you have done and how you have done it, make sure that you document the first three stages and their outcomes, and make sure everyone knows what is expected of them.

5. Shitsuke – maintain the improvements you have made

Make 5S part of your working life – “the way we do things around here”. People need to be committed to maintaining and improving the benefits achieved. The natural tendency is to let the workplace slide back into untidiness and disorganisation; staff need to overcome that tendency by regularly re-visiting the earlier stages and by sticking to the agreed processes and standards.

And now the bonus ball:

6. Safety – eliminate hazards and risks

Purists say that adding ‘Safety’ is unnecessary as, if implemented properly, the other 5S stages will result in a safe work environment. But change can bring risk and reorganising the workplace, especially one with hazardous tools or materials, even more so. It’s no bad thing to make sure that Safety is emphasised and gets serious attention (and it keeps the pedants busy pointing out that you have six Ss in your five S process!).

So yes, there is an element of spring cleaning in 5S – I do like to be topical! – but it is far more than that. There’s some Lean Thinking in 5S too and, conversely, 5S can be a useful part of Lean Transformation; regular readers of this blog will have noticed that many quality initiatives knit together quite nicely like this at the concept level.

5S may not reach the intellectual high-ground of initiatives such as Six Sigma or TQM but it’s much quicker and cheaper to implement and can really transform the working environment; it can be a quick and easy win, and I’m all for that.

An Inspector Calls

The quality guru W. Edwards Deming once said “you can not inspect quality into the product; it is already there.”

There is a great deal of emphasis within the quality management profession on Quality Assurance (preventive techniques) rather than Quality Control (corrective techniques). Inspection, in most cases, is seen as Quality Control; in other words it is not a way of adding value but rather is a cost to the business.

Well that’s true enough – who am I to doubt Deming – but I’d like to put a little balance into the argument. Whilst Quality Assurance is a great ideal to strive for, there is often merit in doing at least some QC; inspection does still have a valid place in your quality tool-box.

Inspection can act as a safety net. Yes, Quality Assurance should be delivering high quality, Zero Defects products that you shouldn’t need to check. But suppose it doesn’t? Suppose something goes wrong? You don’t want your customers to be the first people to spot a problem, so inspection is your chance to find defects first and to fix them quickly so the faults are corrected at source.

Think of a typical problem you have had with incoming materials or parts, or finished goods produced by your company, or even with something you’ve bought for home from the high street. Did it take sophisticated, expensive, calibrated test equipment to spot a subtle defect or could you see it with just a moment’s glance? In other words, would a simple inspection have found the problem? I believe you’ll find in many cases it would have done. If I think back over my years of experience in industry this would be true for many of the defects that I have encountered – they were obvious, why did nobody find them before me?

This can make the process of inspection very cost-effective as it can be done quickly compared with some other screening techniques, such as HASS testing or soak testing, which can be very effective but can tie up expensive equipment for much longer periods.

So what do you need in order to do inspection effectively?

Well, you ought to know what your inspection criteria are. Do you have cosmetic standards? (I’m talking scratches, discolouration and misalignment, not eye-liner and lipstick!) You need to have something that determines what is visually acceptable and what is not, and this should be agreed with your suppliers to avoid the ‘is it / isn’t it good enough’ argument. You need specifications or drawings if you’re measuring things, and you might be able to use industry-wide workmanship standards such as the electronics industry’s IPC-610.

You may also need measuring and inspection tools including simple magnifiers, optical inspection systems, and so on. Digital cameras are a huge asset as ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ and you should be keeping records and metrics (Key Performance Indicators) of your inspection results so you can monitor whether quality is getting better or worse over time and do something about it.

Having a defined inspection process is also beneficial. This helps to avoid the problem of people always inspecting their own work (which can suffer from them having consistent blind spots), or missing out key things you want to have inspected, or suffering from inspection fatigue whereby a small number of defects amongst many good parts don’t get spotted at all.

If 100% inspection isn’t desirable, why not use an Acceptable Quality Limit scheme? See the my blog on AQLs from a few weeks ago.

And here’s a thought – why do inspection of incoming goods or materials at all? Get your suppliers to do the inspection and prove to you they’ve done it e.g. with a digital photo records or measurements. Apart from saving you money it shortens their own quality feedback loop and encourages them to improve quality at source.

Preventive QA, as I mentioned at the start of this piece, is usually seen as superior to Corrective QC; back to Deming who wisely said, “You are never better off after the fire department leaves than you would have been if they weren’t needed in the first place.” But that doesn’t mean we should disband the fire service or throw away our smoke detectors and rely solely on fire risk assessment. Inspection has a useful place in ensuring quality and can be highly cost-effective. Are you making the best use of it?

Toyota – how the mighty fall

I’m not going to join the ‘let’s knock Toyota’ brigade, don’t worry. Enough people are filling that role already. In fact, I drive a Toyota (an older model) and I’ve been very happy with it, and one of my clients has got one too and is equally happy.

My point is how easy it is to go off the rails.

Those of us who work in Quality are only too aware of the huge reputation that TPS – the Toyota Production System – enjoys. It is taught in colleges and universities and vocational training institutes world-wide and is usually seen as the gold standard of ‘how to do manufacturing properly’.

But gosh how they have messed up with sticking accelerators and dodgy Prius brakes. The company that is so good at taking Preventive Action suddenly has some major Corrective Action problems and a PR disaster on its hands.

So here’s the question:

Do you have the equivalent of Toyota’s sticking accelerators and bad brake profiles lurking in your design or production areas? How do you know? What can you do to reduce the risk of a similar nasty surprise hitting your production?

If Toyota, with its world-class manufacturing and quality, can have these sorts of problems, can’t we all?

Why does production suddenly stop dead? Non-random ‘random’ events

There is an assumption, held dear by many people, that apparently random events really are random. If you’re manufacturing 800 widgets a day, and 1 in 100 is faulty when you test it, then every hour you get a test failure and the production line klaxons go off like in Stephen Fry’s ‘QI’ programme.

It isn’t like that!

Faults don’t neatly line themselves up at regular intervals; that would be too easy. They hunt in packs.

I once worked for a professional audio equipment company that had produced exactly the same public address amplifier for many years. It always worked and there were negligible failures during production test… until one Tuesday when all Hell broke loose. Every single one that went into test exploded. The electrolytic output capacitors took off like rockets and left the ceiling covered in that nasty orange fluffy stuff. Not one amplifier worked.

The problem was difficult to find because, despite our initial assumptions, they had all been made correctly; there was no assembly error or component fault.

As part of the circuit design a pair of components – signal diodes – had been used to set the amount of current that flowed in the amplifier’s output circuit. Now, the specified diodes could, in theory, have had a wide range of electrical characteristics and still have been perfectly normal, acceptable, working diodes. Their manufactured tolerance range was very wide. in practice they had always been smack bang in the middle of the possible range of values. Without fail. Until that point…

The batch of diodes bought that time round was different. They were still within their manufacturer’s specification, but only just. They were right on the edge of the permissible limits. Diodes like that had never been seen before by the company and no-one had tried them to see if the circuit still worked, which is a pity because such a test would have shown that it didn’t work – in spectacular fashion – when such an ‘on the edge of its limit’ component was used.

The cure was easy when the problem was found but it still stopped production dead while the investigation was done and the fix designed and proven. It was a costly problem.

And that’s why production sometimes stops dead rather than limps along with a higher-than-you-would-like defect rate. Problems are not uniformly distributed throughout the population, they bunch or cluster as they are dependent on unusual characteristics of batches of components, or wear on a certain machine, or a particular operator not doing things exactly like the other operators; the classic ‘Friday afternoon job’. Problems bunch up and because of that they can stop production dead.

So what can you do about it?

There are a host of techniques that can minimise the risk of nasty surprises in production. Theoretical techniques such as tolerance analysis or Monte Carlo analysis are used, and modelling or simulation is done to identify the sensitive parts of the circuit and see what happens if worst-case toleranced components are used. Sometimes you deliberately build a prototype with parts that are slightly out of specification, in the worst possible combination, to see how it reacts. You vary parameters such as supply voltage or temperature. You do Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (I’ll talk more about this another time).

A particular favourite technique of mine is to use HALT testing, and HASS as well if it’s commercially justified. You use Statistical Process Control in production to spot an impending problem early, maybe before it actually becomes a problem, and you do design centering to give yourself the best chance against varying component and process tolerances. You review your incoming goods inspection or test processes – or, better still, your suppliers’ outgoing goods inspection or test processes – in the light of the performance you really do need… and so on.

In other words, you take a range of preventive actions that help to minimise the risk of production grinding to a halt.

In Radio 4’s Today programme this morning the team were pondering on double-yolk eggs. The probability of finding a box full of double-yolks, at random, is 1 in many millions or even trillions… So why had so many listeners found six in a box? The answer is not only that some hens produce far more than their random quota, but that factory workers check eggs against a strong light and put double yolks to one side; the ‘random event’ of a double-yolk in an egg box is, in practice, anything but random.

What ‘random’ surprises might you encounter in production? How have you minimised the risk? What more could you do?

Windows Live Writer

Until now I’ve been using the WordPress user interface. It’s a little clunky but you get used to it. However, today I was introduced to the joys of Microsoft Live Writer by the IT Manager at one of my clients and this is my first go at using it. And, I have to say, it’s a great deal easier to use than the built-in editor so dear Rob has come up trumps again!

The secrets of Lean

‘Lean’ means fat-free or thin or containing little waste, doesn’t it? (Appropriate for just after Christmas…)

The answer is yes, and it’s one of the most recent trends in quality and management that started on the factory floor with Lean Manufacturing and has spread to other areas such as Lean Six Sigma and Lean Software Development. In fact, Lean can be applied to all business activities – the Lean Enterprise.

Companies that have successfully implemented Lean claim huge improvements in productivity and costs – often several tens of percent – so I thought it was worth talking a little about.

The Lean concept comes from the famous Toyota Production System (TPS) in the late 1980s. It works on the principle that any activity which does not add value to the product (or service) that goes to the end customer is wasteful and should be eliminated.

Lean takes the customer perspective. The objective is to create more customer value, i.e. things the customer is willing to pay for, using fewer resources. It aims to reduce waste throughout the entire ‘value stream’ (all the business processes and operations used to deliver value to the customer, including the supply chain from raw materials to finished goods) – whether this is waste in materials, energy, time or effort – so is a very ‘Green’ initiative.

To be successful, Lean needs a long-term change in the way a company operates – ‘Lean Transformation’ – and is a process of continuous improvement; Lean is a journey not a destination. It needs to involve everyone from top management to the factory (or office) floor, with a special emphasis on the latter as that’s where the responsibility and authority is delegated to and where the real benefits come from.

Within Lean Manufacturing, seven different types of waste have been defined:

  1. Over-production (production greater than demand)
  2. Over-processing (activities necessary only because of poor design or tooling)
  3. Transportation (moving products that are not actually required for the next process or production step)
  4. Motion (people or equipment moving more than the minimum required to perform the processes)
  5. Waiting (delay before the next process step)
  6. Inventory (components and Work In Progress)
  7. Defects (time, effort and material used in identifying and fixing faults).

The aim of Lean is to eliminate these wastes and, in fact, to eliminate all non-value-adding work by changing the company’s processes, procedures and systems.

Non-manufacturing processes have their own types of waste that are different to manufacturing but to which many of the same principles apply, which is why you now see Lean thinking applied to Six Sigma, Product Development, Logistics, Healthcare, the Enterprise, and so on.

For instance, take the office process of Customer Sales Order processing: Where do customer orders get delayed and how can these delays be eliminated? How much time is wasted correcting errors in the orders and how can errors be prevented? Is any paperwork (or e-forms or emails) unnecessary? Are there any unnecessary stages of approval to go through (but all the necessary ones)? Does information flow erratically (e.g. the same form is handled several times by the same person) and how can this be made smoother? …and so on.

Wasted time can be difficult to identify, so many companies specifically focus on reducing time as a key driver of Lean Implementation; agility and Lean go hand in hand. There is a also lot of work done on the planning of processes to avoid overloads or unreasonable demands, on eliminating work via improved design, and on improving the ‘smoothness’ of flow of information, processes and materials.

Being customer-focused, the emphasis is on agile ‘pull’ processes that provide goods and services only when the customer needs them, not when the supplier would like to provide them.

Lean isn’t a quick fix. I would love to be able to write a 500 word ‘just do this’ blog and see you turn your company into a Lean one overnight, but I can’t; it’s a big subject and there’s no simple workbook solution.

This is not to say that individual tools and techniques, including quick fix ones, can’t be used within Lean. There is a key role for many different tools and techniques such as Six Sigma, Kaizen, Kanban, 5S, 5 Whys, Poka-Yoke, Just-In-Time (JIT), Statistical Process Control (SPC), Zero Defects (Right First Time), and so on. However, their use does not automatically result in a Lean organisation, they are merely tools to be used where appropriate.

Lean is a way of thinking. It involves cultural change and that can be difficult and time-consuming. But Lean Transformation, with its emphasis on reducing waste and improving efficiency from the customer’s perspective, can bring huge commercial benefit to organisations that implement it well and, at the same time, offers Green credentials that benefit society as a whole.

That’s worthy of further investigation, don’t you think?

My New Year’s Resolution – give up on Amazon Marketplace

HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope 2010 brings you peace, happiness and success.

I’m not big on resolutions, but one that I am going to make is about dear Amazon and its third party retailing arm, Amazon Marketplace.

My recent experience corroborates past experience; between 1 in 2 and 1 in 3 fail to arrive, or arrive too late, or the wrong things arrive, or the product is damaged, and often you can’t get hold of the retailer to do anything about it. I’m afraid that it comes across as Amateur Hour, just the sort of thing that gives Internet shopping a bad name.

Here’s just one example out of several – it was a product ordered in plenty of time for an end-of-term presentation and for which I paid extra for rapid delivery; it arrived far too late, despite leaving more than enough time, and the wooden handle had been varnished then put into its plastic bag still wet which caused the damage you can see – it should be very smooth (the raised edges of varnish were so sharp you could cut yourself on some of them).

We were even lucky to get it in such ‘good’ condition; the packaging was so poor that it had a high likelihood of the metal parts being bent in the post.

For some time the supplier couldn’t be contacted because his “computer had problems and the chap who fixes it is on holiday”. Eventually he offered to send another one, then someone else associated with his business countermanded him and refused.

I did get my money back eventually, but that isn’t the point.

In my opinion the problem stems from the nature of Marketplace; although some of its vendors are large and reputable – or even small and reputable, I have nothing against small businesses – many of them seem to be hobby or spare-time businesses with no independent web or physical presence and little quality control. And you get the results you would expect, especially at a busy time such as Christmas.

So in 2010 I’ll vote with my feet. I’ll stick with Amazon itself (which has been fine in my experience), not its Marketplace; I will go to those that deliver great customer service, and I’ll eschew those that don’t care or won’t deliver.

The quality of supermarket check-outs

Don’t you just hate the new self-service checkouts? The ones that “save you time” but actually take a lot longer than the normal ones and save the supermarket shed-loads of money at your expense.

Sainsbury’s, Tesco and B&Q seem to be the worst offenders in my part of the world.

Why they believe that it will be anything other than a disaster if the general public operate their checkouts I’m at a loss to know. Even trained operators, who do the job for 8 hours a day, have many glitches that need multiple scanning, manual bar-code number entry, or a supervisor’s help. The general public will only do the job for a few minutes a week and have no training at all, so the probability of failure is multiplied many times over.

My wife tried a new Sainsbury’s self-checkout yesterday; she only had  6 items, “how hard can it be?”

She couldn’t put anything else on the checkout area as she went through the process – it seemed to be weighing the goods before and after scanning to make sure she was scanning them all, so handbags and other shopping had to be scraped along the floor. For the bottle of wine she had to call a supervisor to verify she was over 18 (she’s in her mid fifties!) On two other items the system very loudly said it couldn’t read the bar-code and in each case a supervisor had to be called. For one of these even the supervisor, after several minutes of fiddling around, couldn’t sort it so she had to take everything to a different checkout with the supervisor and re-scan it all.

I enjoy using new technologies and gadgets, but I now insist on going through a traditional, manned checkout because DIY checkouts are so awful. Even this isn’t the answer because the stores now punish you by restricting the number of manned checkouts, which leads to exceedingly long queues, to make you ‘prefer’ the self-checkout solution.

So, let me ask what you think:  This is good quality customer service, is it? This helps the customer and delivers a better shopping experience, does it?

No, I don’t think so either!

UPDATE: 9 December 09 – the BBC have just reported on this subject and reached similar conclusions: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8399963.stm