(written in December, 1996)
by Jim Heaphy
Successful businesses inevitably place great emphasis on managing quality control - carefully planned steps taken to ensure that the products and services offered to their customers are consistent and reliable and truly meet their customers' needs. Multinational corporations have entire departments of highly trained specialists to design and implement their quality assurance programs. For a custom countertop fabricator, as for other small businesses that make unique, handcrafted products, quality control is also essential. Such companies cannot rely on a staff of trained experts or the standardization inherent in mass production to take care of quality control. One or a handful of managers must handle it themselves, along with every other management function. That is part of being a small business person. It is all too often true, though, that fabricators fail to institute their own carefully planned quality control procedures. I would like to suggest a few simple steps that can help a countertop fabricator or any similar small business improve the quality of its products and services.
It is said that when the Japanese business that later became Sony Corporation was founded, the co-founder Mr. Ibuka established
the company philosophy by stating that "If it were possible to establish conditions where persons could become united with a firm spirit of teamwork and exercise to their hearts' desire their technological capacity, then such an organization could bring untold pleasure and untold benefits." For decades, Japanese businesses have pioneered management techniques intended to improve quality continuously. American and European companies have spent years catching up.
Modern computer communication gives even the smallest business the means to rapidly access information and advice through the Internet. For those interested in developing or improving a quality control program, I recommend "Welcome to Quality Management Principles" on the Worldwide Web at http://wineasy.se/qmp/. This informative web page is maintained by Krister Forsberg of Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications equipment manufacturer. Forsberg's brief summary of quality management principles follows:
Principle 1 - Customer-Focused Organization. Organizations depend on their customers and therefore should understand current and future customer needs, meet customer requirements, and strive to exceed customer expectations.
Principle 2 - Leadership. Leaders establish unity of purpose, direction, and the internal environment of an organization. They create that environment in which people can become fully involved in achieving the organization's
Principle 3 - Involvement of People. People at all levels are the essence of an organization and their full involvement enables their abilities to be used for the organization's benefit.
Principle 4 - Process Approach. A desired result is achieved more efficiently when related resources and activities are managed as a process.
Principle 5 - System Approach to Management. Identifying, understanding, and managing a system of interrelated processes for a given objective contributes to the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization.
Principle 6 - Continual Improvement. Continual improvement is a permanent objective of the organization.
Principle 7 - Factual Approach to Decision Making. Effective decisions and actions are based on the logical and intuitive analysis of data and information.
Principle 8 - Mutually Beneficial Supplier Relationships.
Mutually beneficial relationships between the organization and its supplier enhance the ability of both organizations to create value.
Let me suggest a few programs that countertop fabricators can implement, guided by these principles, to improve quality and customer satisfaction:
Call each and every customer a few days after completion of an installation to ask whether the customer is fully satisfied. Act promptly to resolve customer concerns. Enclose a brief survey form with the final invoice requesting information on the customer's opinions and expectations. Listen with great care to every one of your customer's ideas and suggestions, and thank them for their input.
All management personnel, starting with the owner, must understand and agree that quality management is essential to the success of the business. Once that agreement has been reached, every employee must be involved in the process. All too often, employees are reluctant to report quality problems, feeling that they would be "rocking the boat" or seen as criticizing co-workers to management. Every effort must be made to convince each employee that jobs and prosperity depend on quality products and services, and that teamwork and cooperation are essential in ensuring quality.
Every process required to satisfy a customer needs to be analyzed with the goal of improving customer satisfaction. Profitability will inevitably follow. Functions such as sales, extending credit, ordering materials, measuring and templating, shop fabrication, delivery, installation, billing and collection can't be seen as separate, unrelated functions. Problems resulting in customer dissatisfaction or financial losses most often occur when information is being passed from one such process to another. Special care must be taken to ensure that every process connects reliably to the adjacent processes.
Most thoughtful analysis should be lavished on any chronic problem areas. For example, if several customers have recently complained about visible seams, then the whole process of assembling seams needs to be analyzed in detail, with absolutely nothing taken for granted. An itemized checklist identifying every conceivable factor that could affect seam quality should be developed, with actual observations being made every step along the way. This sort of systematic approach will help develop effective solutions much more quickly and reliably than more haphazard methods.
The attitude that says, "We've always done it that way" is the enemy of continuous quality improvement. Instead, every employee should be encouraged to think, "There is no aspect of how we do our jobs that can't be improved in some way. Together, let's figure out how to do it."
Keep accurate records, and more importantly, analyze that data. Again, in this era of sophisticated $2,000 computers, not even the smallest business has any excuse to avoid analyzing factual information that can be used to improve the quality of its products and services. Job costing is the basic function that is still ignored by many fabricators who bid based on what they think their competitors will bid, rather than on their actual history of costs in completing similar projects. When you can quickly quote an accurate, competitive price on custom work, you are providing an important aspect of quality to your customer - and an assurance that you will remain in business as a profit-making venture able to meet their needs in years to come.
Rely on the training and technical support offered by the manufacturers of your materials and machinery. Read the technical bulletins and manuals, attend and stay awake during the seminars, view the videos, and listen carefully to what their sales representatives have to tell you. Your suppliers are part of the team that enables you to satisfy the needs of your customers.
It seems that I'm describing very basic principles here. I can assure you that the level of quality analysis used in the product development departments of large high-tech companies is difficult for a layman to comprehend. In our small business settings, though, much of it simply seems like common sense. Unfortunately, many well meaning fabricators all too often disregard these principles. As a result, they produce poor quality work, lose customers, perhaps get sued and then go out of business. Don't be among them. Be a survivor. Put quality first.