Familiarity Isn’t Enough: How to Understand and Fix Manufacturing Processes


July 16, 2018

Understanding manufacturing processes

Anyone who’s hired a quality management consultant knows that familiarity with processes isn’t necessarily the same as understanding them. The consultant’s outside perspective is often their greatest value, allowing them to ask questions that challenge the status quo.

And yet, many automotive and aerospace manufacturers still tend to mistake process familiarity for true understanding, an error that breeds complacency, variance and defects.

A layered process audit (LPA) program is a high-frequency auditing strategy that can bring these variances to the surface. However, LPAs only work when they drive a deeper understanding of your processes via the right questions, frequency and cross-functional participation.

Layered Process Audits Are Just the Starting Point

Increasing numbers of manufacturers are adopting LPAs to reduce process errors and defects, as well as to meet automaker requirements. On a basic level, LPAs consist of several elements:

  • Short, high-frequency checks taking place every day
  • Analyzing process inputs rather than inspecting finished products
  • Cross-functional participation at all levels of the organization

Checking off each item alone isn’t enough to drive true value. Instead, you need to make sure you’re asking the right questions—and that the right people are involved.

A 95% Pass Rate Means You’re Doing It Wrong

Well-designed LPA questions are critical to uncovering what’s really going on within your processes. If you repeatedly ask questions with a 90-95% pass rate, all you’re doing is proving you’re familiar with the process. You’re not actually learning anything new.

For example, you’ll often see LPA questions like “Are work instructions posted?” This type of question has little to no value. You have to get to the why behind it. It makes more sense to ask whether the operator can demonstrate each step of the process, and if not, why?

The lesson: LPAs must be iterative and constantly changing. Update questions and checklists by regularly incorporating new perspectives and insights. Take a step back and ask whether the question is actually capable of uncovering the problem you’re trying to prevent.

Balancing Participation from Different Groups

Many manufacturers mistakenly think it’s the quality department’s job to come up with LPA questions. But the truth is, quality doesn’t have the deep operational knowledge to come up with all the questions needed to keep standardized processes in place.

Instead, quality’s role should be to support the processes generated by operations, production and manufacturing engineers, as well as high-level input from management. Unless you’re drawing expertise from all of those tiers, you’re leaving money on the table.

Of course, having this many cooks in the kitchen can lead to some friction, especially when people write questions to paint themselves in a favorable light. To address these problems:

  • Each department, from quality to operations to management, should be able to add questions
  • No department should have veto power over the others
  • You have to treat problems as opportunities to improve processes, taking special care not to blame people
  • Everyone’s shared goal must be improving quality

Layer 3 Audits Are Key to Game-Changing Insights

With well-formed questions in place, you’ll be able to extract more valuable LPA data. The next step is moving from familiarity to big-picture understanding—an area where layer 3 auditors responsible for end-to-end processes play a key role.

For instance, a visiting executive might ask why it takes so long to go from stamping to molding. While the plant manager might think they’re doing great based on historical data, the executive can share how the plant down the road takes six seconds less per stamp.

We’ve found that manufacturers with the highest first pass yields are those that prioritize layer 3 audits, following a specific set of best practices:

  • Accompanied audits: Quality and operations people should walk through with visiting executives, capturing the executive’s feedback and questions. Later, those teams can work to systematize that information into measurable questions.
  • Monthly frequency: If top-level managers aren’t doing LPAs monthly, that’s a sign of an unhealthy LPA system and quality culture. Quarterly layer 3 audits simply aren’t enough to get the high-level feedback needed to tie it all together.
  • Cross-functional participation: In addition to plant managers and visiting executives, layer 3 auditors should include all employees who work in your facility. Finance, accounting, human resources and maintenance all participate, so they can see the impact of their work—a central ingredient for a culture of quality.

Obviously, the strategies discussed in this post are more involved than simply having quality ask the same 10 questions over and over again. Instead, you have to step back and get the bigger picture, defining each problem before jumping to solutions, incorporating new perspectives and challenging traditional assumptions.