Use Your Brain Trust!

Late one afternoon the call came in that Boeing was putting a hold on receiving any further of our highest volume and most profitable product. They said the incoming rejection rate was too high and until this was resolved we were on hold. I had only been with the company a few months and I already had a number of fires I was dealing with and did not need another one, particularly with our biggest customer and one that had such immediate economic impact.

This was obviously a concern to everyone involved with the product line. How could this happen overnight? Well it didn’t! Boeing was under pressure to ramp up their production line and the quality problems with this product had been there for some time but were not high on their priority list but when it did percolate to the top they took immediate action.

I convened a meeting of manufacturing, engineering and test engineering to understand why the product was having such a poor incoming inspection quality. No one had an immediate answer for, in their minds, everything was “normal”. I asked everyone to work together and diagram how the product was currently manufactured, tested and environmentally stressed. We consumed several white boards with functional blocks and arrows. As we stood back we started asking questions about why it was manufactured and tested in this way and were these procedures the best way to do it to get the highest quality unit to the customer.

Quickly we identified a major flaw in the process. Two critical steps in the process were reversed and it apparently had been that way for some time. How did this happen? No one knew specifically, or own up to it, but it appeared to be the result of a “patch” applied to the manufacturing process to solve one problem that was now causing an even greater problem that was not reviewed to make sure it was compatible with the total process to produce a quality product.

The error in the process was corrected and all units currently in house were retested under the new process and within a matter of a few weeks the quality matter was resolved, units were exceeded incoming inspection standards, Boeing removed the product hold and paid invoices – life was good!

Taking advantage of the collective knowledge and expertise of those closest to the product, “the brain trust”, was the key to a quick resolution of this problem. As individuals they did not recognize the source of the problem as their perspective was affected by their bias of what they felt should be the right process. Fortunately as a group they were able to admit that the old process was flawed and could not produce a quality product, identify what changes needed to be made and establish a corrective action plan to implement to get all in house units, and eventually those at Boeing, retested, certified and accepted by Boeing.

Could this problem have been solved another way? Possibly but it would have taken longer, the outcome may not have changed the process, leaving a process in a condiiton that might create the same problem again and the response to Boeing would have been unreasonably delayed.

This incident raises a number of questions from our experience that you might want to consider for your company:

  • What problem resolution process do you use in your company?
  • Does it take a “stop shipment order” of this magnitude to get the right people in the room?
  • Do your employees have the freedom to critically question the process without fear of retribution from those in power positions?
  • Is your brain trust available to solve problems that need resolution fast or are the problems relegated to employees who are not in positions to get action within the company?
  • Do not assume that just because you have a process that has been in existence for some time that it cannot become “corrupted” even under the best circumstances?

Make sure that your “brain trust” is applied to isolate and correct dysfunctional business processes and serve the best interests of the company and customer.

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