Your quality management system needs to be in tip-top shape — especially during this time of supply shortages and high demand. Check out these areas for honing and improving your product and information flow
When it’s tough to get necessary components in the door and finished mattresses out to meet the strong consumer demand for bedding — as has been the case for the past year or so — it can be easy to lose focus on other goals.
But you can’t afford to let quality management be one of those areas that slips, especially when you’re sourcing materials from new suppliers or altering the construction of mattress models because of the availability or price of components. Quality assurance is more important than ever.
There simply is no time for errors, returns or, worse, product recalls.
Here we’ll look at ways to improve the quality management system you use to track items — from your suppliers’ plants all the way through to your own factories and the moment products are delivered to your customers.
Setting the standards
A number of companies in the bedding industry have adopted or been certified through quality management programs, including some of the most well-known:
• International Standards Organization (ISO 9001)
• Lean Manufacturing
• Six Sigma
• Total Quality Management
While the specifics of each vary, they share an emphasis on systemic, data-driven approaches to continuous improvement by sharpening efficiencies, reducing costs and increasing product quality to meet the needs of customers.
Such established systems have the benefit of offering proven guidance, procedures and practices that can be rolled out over multiple manufacturing locations. They also give reassurances to suppliers, customers and partners that you take quality seriously.
“Adopting a (quality management system) can support compliance, profitability and the development of a quality-driven culture. While there are numerous QMS standards, the best-known systems … all represent a comprehensive framework for the quality-driven organization,” writes Ezra Kelderman in a November 2020 blog for Qualio, a firm that offers cloud-based quality management systems with dual headquarters in Dublin and San Francisco.
If you haven’t already, there are plenty of consultants and companies that will help you to choose and implement one of the established systems or who offer their own programs with accompanying software or cloud-based resources.
Honing your system
Regardless of the quality management system you use, if you are looking to improve quality across your operation, there are key areas you can address. Kelderman notes that nine important elements are included in the widely adopted ISO 9001 standard and appear in many other quality assurance systems, as well. Look at how your company has changed in the past year or two to determine areas in which you might concentrate on improving your efforts.
Quality manual: This is a “governing” document that describes your quality policies and goals, explains the scope of your quality program, lays out your quality procedures, and delineates your processes and procedures (often through diagrams or flowcharts).
Quality objectives: “Well-written objectives lend purpose to a QMS initiative and establish a customer-centric culture in an organization,” Kelderman says. Your current quality objectives could include specific training goals for staff or ways to streamline and modernize record-keeping for more efficient retrieval.
Organizational structure and responsibilities: Diagrams and other visuals are useful in detailing your company’s structure and the responsibilities of everyone in the company.
“Documenting organizational structure should address the entire product lifecycle using techniques such as flowcharts, which depict the ‘path of workflow,’ ” Kelderman says.
Data management: It’s important to standardize and tighten up your data management. As Kelderman says, “organizations with ineffective data management practices can experience inconsistent product quality, operating inefficiencies, compliance risks, poor customer satisfaction and low profitability.” Manage your data in a way that supports your broader quality goals. Include not only comprehensive production metrics but also customer satisfaction rates, supplier performance measures and preventive/correction actions, he says.
Technologies such as the internet of things and RFID tags are making data collection easier, allowing manufacturers to better track suppliers’ products and their own inventories to speed production and improve quality control, says Darren Tessitore, owner of Tampa Bay, Florida-based Thrive Management, in a 2017 article for Smart Industry.
Processes: “(Quality management systems) are inherently process-driven approaches to quality control and assurance,” Kelderman says. “…Initial efforts to define processes should create a high-level picture of how processes serve the organization and intersect with resources such as employees, machines or technology.” Next steps would be to define standards and create ways to gauge success.
Quality equipment: To sustain production quality, machinery and other equipment should be regularly calibrated to the supplier’s standards. Maintenance schedules should be set and all maintenance documented. Many of the newest machines for bedding production make this easier with automated maintenance procedures.
Document control: Documentation helps drive a quality management system and can include manuals, outlines of policies and procedures, related communications and other information, according to Kelderman. “Effective record keeping is crucial to the success of the (quality management system),” he says. “…During QMS design, organizations should create specific definitions of records within the organization and policies for document creation, retention and editing.”
Customer satisfaction with product quality: You can use a number of methods to measure customer satisfaction, including surveys and records of complaints, as well as broader analyses of satisfaction trends or a management review of customer satisfaction.
Continuous improvement: This really is the essence of quality assurance programs. “(Quality management systems) dictate that continual improvement is an organizationwide responsibility,” Kelderman says, with top management showing leadership and commitment to the quality process.
Timing is everything
There’s another element that sometimes gets overlooked in discussions of quality assurance, says Kevin Duggan, founder of the Institute for Operational Excellence in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.
“Quality assurance in manufacturing is also about promptness,” he says. For bedding producers who’ve survived the past year, it’s a concept that likely resonates.
“In a high-performance organization, quality is not really about quality. It is about the customer delivery system — a designed overall process that connects all specific processes required to deliver products to customers,” Duggan writes in an April 2020 article for The Fabricator magazine.
“A customer delivery system has two main components: material flow and information flow,” he continues. “Material flow means how material moves from receiving through all of our processes to shipment to the customer; information flow means how information flows to ensure the material is always moving at the designed rate. Material and information flow should always move forward toward the customer without any stoppages, backflows, rework or needed clarification.”
This all means that any quality assurance effort must define normal flows for both materials and information through the production process — and then define, track and correct for abnormal flows that slow the movement of either materials or information, he says. Ideally, processes are developed that allow employees to respond to abnormal flows of materials or information as soon as — or even before — they arise, without involving management.
Duggan recommends calculating guaranteed turnaround times throughout the production and inspection processes: “With multiple (guaranteed turnaround times) for different segments of the flow, it simply becomes a matter of adding them up to promise an overall turnaround time — a powerful selling point for customers.”
Predictive data analytics made possible by sophisticated machine learning capabilities can take proactive approaches to the next level, truly fixing problems before they happen. In a 2019 BCG study, participants said predictive analytics, sensors and tracking, and electronic feedback loops are key technologies currently driving quality improvements, on-time delivery and strong bottom lines.
“Predictive tools give manufacturers unprecedented power to analyze massive amounts of data and discover correlations between critical variables. These insights enable companies to address the root causes of problems preemptively — before quality issues occur,” according to an August 2019 BCG article about the study it conducted along with the American Society for Quality and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Qualität. “…Compared with manual inspection processes, machine vision technologies are less expensive to use and more effectively verify quality or detect quality issues at early stages of the production process.”
Alphabet Soup: QA vs. QC vs. QMS
Quality assurance and quality control are sometimes used interchangeably but they do have different meanings — and your manufacturing operation needs to have programs, protocols and procedures in place for both.
According to the American Society for Quality in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, quality assurance is “focused on providing confidence that quality requirements will be fulfilled.” It’s process-oriented and includes “all the planned and systematic activities” needed to ensure quality products.
Quality control, meanwhile, is focused on making sure that products fulfill certain requirements, according to ASQ. Quality control is more specific, identifying defects and assessing the quality of products, whether raw materials, components or finished goods, most often through inspections.
Another good way to think of it: “The goal of QA is to always be improving the development processes to reduce the number of defects in the product being produced,” according to the Sofeast Group, a Hong Kong-based quality control and accountability firm that assists companies with supply chains in China and Southeast Asia. And “the goal of QC is to identify defects and fix them before the product reaches the customer.”
Both quality assurance and quality control fall under a larger umbrella of quality management systems, which Ezra Kelderman defines as “a set of business processes, which are implemented to help an organization deliver products (that) consistently achieve customer satisfaction.” Kelderman writes a blog for Qualio, a firm that offers cloud-based quality management systems with dual headquarters in Dublin and San Francisco.
A quality management system focuses on evidence-based decision making, systems-based analysis and continuous improvement throughout every aspect of a company.
Stepping Up Your Inspections Game
A key part of any quality control program is a protocol for inspections, whether of components from your suppliers or of finished bedding products coming out of your own plants. If you’ve recently changed suppliers, added new product lines or invested in additional manufacturing equipment, it may be a good time to review your quality control processes and make changes.
Among the key factors to consider:
• Setting inspection levels. Best practices for quality control call for selecting a random sample of items for inspection. “But how many samples to select? On the one hand, checking only a few pieces might prevent the inspector from noticing quality issues; on the other hand, the objective is to keep the inspection short by reducing the number of samples to check,” says Renaud Anjoran, founder of the Sofeast Group, a Hong Kong-based quality control and accountability firm that assists companies with supply chains in China and Southeast Asia.
Yet there are times when you may need to increase — or decrease — inspection rates. For instance, if a supplier has shipped substandard components recently, you’ll want to increase the number of items picked for inspection for a period of time. “Similarly, if a supplier has consistently delivered acceptable products in the past and keeps its organization unchanged,” less frequent inspections may be needed, Anjoran writes in an article for his blog platform, QualityInspection.org.
• Establishing defect levels. For each component and finished product, you need to establish the types of defects you’re looking for. A checklist is perhaps the easiest way to do so — and should be updated as components and construction methods evolve.
In the quality assurance realm, there may be a push for zero defects but in the real world, Anjoran says, “there is no such thing as zero defects.” What’s key is that there are different types of defects, with some much worse than others. For instance, a critical defect might eventually cause harm to a user and lead you to reject an entire shipment. A more minor defect might “represent a departure from specifications” but still could be acceptable, he says.
The key is to set appropriate defect levels, sometimes called the acceptance quality limit (or acceptable quality level). You might have higher acceptable defect levels, for instance, for components used to build the base of a single-sided mattress and much lower levels for something like ticking. And, of course, there are some areas in which, despite what Anjoran says, you need to demand zero defects, such as for FR components.
• Deciding when to inspect. You can inspect at several points along the production process: before production (to check raw materials and components), during production (to assess average product quality and make corrections before significant problems occur) and after production but before shipping (as a final quality control step).
“Spending a few hundreds of dollars to check and fix issues early can be an excellent investment; it might save you weeks of delay, shipments by air, and/or lower quality products that you have to accept and deliver to your own customers,” Anjoran says.
There may be times, Anjoran adds, when you’ll also want to perform a loading inspection “to make sure the factory ships the right products, in the right quantity and with the right loading plan.”