Royce Lowe, Steel Marketplace

tool_steelA few years after the end of WWII, an American named W. Edwards Deming tried to talk his fellow countrymen into putting quality into their products. He was met with an answer he neither liked nor understood. So he took his idea off to Japan where he was greeted with open arms and later came to be revered. He saw the seeds he planted bear fruit many times over. Mr. Deming had started what came to be known as “total-quality management,” and Japanese industry would never be the same again.

The quality revolution didn’t happen overnight: it took a decade, maybe more, before the results of dedication to quality showed through in the finished products. Many of us will remember the stigma that used to accompany “Made in Japan,” but how many of us remember just when it was that the Japanese arrived here on our doorsteps with quality goods at then bargain prices? This from a country that has to import just about all its raw materials.

The Japanese economic miracle is history that’s been told countless times, and anyone who’s driven a Japanese car or used Japanese steel knows that Japanese quality is no myth. Their goods are not cheap these days but quality is there. What’s the secret of total-quality management, and how can it apply to any company of any size selling any product?

Readers of this magazine are in the business of buying, processing, fabricating and selling steel and other metals, and of buying, using and selling metalworking equipment. In a perfect world we’d get exactly what we were looking for at a great price, delivered on time, and of irreproachable quality. All the time. Complaints are costly, and the worst way to find out about a quality problem is from a customer. So how do we keep our problems to a minimum and what do we do to ensure customer satisfaction?

The motivation to supply a quality product or service must be customer-driven, and this entails making sure we know exactly what the customer requires. If we’re supplying steel to an end-user, for example, we must ask all the right questions to find out what tolerances, surface finish, hardness etc. are required, and if a difficult forming operation is involved we must supply a product which we know will make the part. It’s also our customer’s responsibility to work with us and to give us all the information and samples we require so we can supply the necessary quality material. Armed with this information we can set about supplying a quality product on a continuing basis. But how?

There was a time when quality was the responsibility of the Quality Control Department, whose mandate was to ensure that sub-standard material didn’t reach the customer. Material that was rejected against order could either be scrapped or reapplied against less demanding orders. This always entailed dollar losses and the necessity for large areas of a plant to be set aside as rework areas. A true quality program requires the participation of every person who ‘touches’ the product, from the sales person who takes the order to the worker who loads the material on the truck. All processes within a company must be standardized according to each customer’s requirements and end use.

Much has been written about quality in the past few years. There is no doubt that great improvements have been made in North America, but much remains to be done. For a quality program to succeed, each employee must be empowered, and responsible for quality. This isn’t easy to do and it takes time to get a program started and constant diligence on everyone’s part to keep it working. Deming said that to achieve perfect quality companies must “drive out fear so that everyone may work effectively,” and this isn’t easy when downsizing might be in the air. The other side of the coin of course, at least for small and medium-size businesses, is that in most cases the risk of downsizing will decrease with improving quality. Most workers will surely react favourably to being told that the customer expects good quality, and that customer satisfaction and a reduction in in-house rejections are good for the company, hence for the employee.

Implementation of a quality program is not easy, rather it’s a lengthy operation and may in many instances best be left to consultants in the field. When aiming for ISO 9000 accreditation, outside assistance is mostly mandatory. Whichever path we choose to achieve improved quality, total commitment on the part of everyone in the company is absolutely essential. No program will succeed unless it has the backing of top management, and unless every employee takes responsibility for quality and follows the guidelines and standards laid down to the best of their ability. Once the program is underway, and all employees are aware of their responsibilities, it will take time and dedication to reach the goal of improved quality, hence customer satisfaction. It must be borne in mind that customer requirements change, hence continuing dialogue between customer and supplier is essential.

But why quality? Because it pays! It pays the supplier in lower rejects, hence increased yield and productivity. It pays the customer because he receives a material he can use with no rejects. In the final analysis, however, quality is what will do the required job, make the required part, efficiently and with an absolute minimum of reject material, ideally with no reject material at all. A fabricator making a large run of stamped parts from commercial quality, cold-rolled coil on a progressive die set up will profit greatly if the supplier ships him coils with the same surface finish, to the lower end of his hardness range, and within a tight thickness tolerance. If he receives such material the fabricator will profit both from a total lack of rejects and minimum tool wear. He’ll also be sure of shipping his own customers a quality product on time.

A supplier who knows he has shipped steel totally within his customer’s requirements may rest assured that any rejects that might occur during fabrication are not of his making, rather of the fabricator’s tooling. Here we have a win-win situation with both customer and supplier producing good material with a minimum of rejects. In contrast to this type of automated operation, we could cite parts produced on a brake press, with generous bend radii, for an unexposed application. Here a little more leeway will be allotted on thickness and hardness tolerances, but it must never be forgotten that most customers buy by the pound or the kilo, so will prefer the supplier who sticks to the lower end of the thickness and hardness ranges.

Lest suppliers feel that their customers are being a little too demanding in their requirements, let them not forget that their customers probably have customers who are even more critical.

Motorola claim that their fanatical devotion to quality resulted in savings in manufacturing costs of $6.5 billion between 1987 and 1994.

For quality to show through in a company’s products and in its balance sheet, the concept of quality must become a state of mind, quality must run through a company’s blood, responsibility for quality must reach from the boardroom to the shop floor, and, in effect, quality must become a way of doing business. And the customer must be King.

I’ll leave the last word to an American quality consultant whose first question to a prospective client is, “Do you have a director of the way we do business?” “If not,” he goes on, “You don’t need a director of quality.”