“Is it really true, that we do not add any value?” People in supportive functions pose me this question quite regularly. Recently it was someone from the quality department that confronted me with this question. Coincidentally or not, the quality department plays a role in each of the three Lean initiatives that I currently accompany. All of the quality departments involved are experiencing a change in the role they play as a result of the Lean transformation their organization as a whole is going through. In anticipation of the answer to the question: although I don’t think it is the right question to ask, yes, from a Lean point of view the quality department does not add value to the product. Not even when the customer has asked for it specifically and is willing to pay for it…
Value for the Customer
Let me begin with first taking a good look at myself: to be perfectly honest, I haven’t created a lot of value myself for the customers of the production companies that I have worked for during my career until now. Perhaps when – as a student – I was working as a temp for an industrial bakery and a manufacturer of wind deflectors for cars. But that is the way things stand. Most of the roles I have fulfilled in my career until now were either managerial or supportive, advisory or policy-making and policy deployment type of roles. Roles that do not create anything of direct value in the eyes of the customer. In fact, there are many roles that do not create something for the customer or even touch the product on its journey through the organization and the value stream. But even when you are actually touching the product on its journey, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are creating value for the customer. To stay within the scope of the quality department: inspecting a product is such an example.
So does that mean that supportive roles and departments do not have any value add? As I already mentioned, I don’t feel this is in fact really the right question to ask. The question whether a supportive role actually creates value for the customer can be answered unequivocally: no. Does that than immediately imply that supportive functions are dispensable? No, of course not. Let’s not confuse the words waste and dispensable. It may well be that when such a non-value adding task is not or not properly fulfilled even more waste is created in the value stream. It is therefore that I have always said to my teams that even when (or even better: because) we do not create any direct value for the customer, our raison d’être should be based upon us supporting the operational teams in the elimination of more waste in the value stream than what we cost. Otherwise we’d better resign right away.
The Role of the Quality Department in Lean
In the above, I looked at the value of a supportive function in more general terms. The value (or probably better: the return) of a supportive function should be based upon its role in the elimination of waste in the actual value stream. Translated into the quality department context, this means that it should help operational teams to continuously eliminate more defects than the quality department costs. And when I speak of elimination, I do not mean only catching defects, but to properly direct, organize and continually adjust the ways of working in the truly value-adding operations of the organization so that defects won’t be created anymore. In addition, I also expect a quality department to ensure that the organization disposes of the right knowledge and experience on the subject of structured problem solving.
The role quality departments adopt during the Lean transformation of their organizations is that of a guide that directs, supports and also guards. A guide that accompanies the organization on two parallel journeys. The first one is a journey related to problem detection that involves the following three elements:
- The transformation from judgment inspection without feedback loop, to informative inspection that provides feedback.
- The continual shortening of the time it takes to provide this feedback, by going from final inspection (at the end of the value stream), to successive inspection (where each operation inspects the preceding operation in the value stream), to self-inspection (whereby the operation inspects its own product), and finally to source inspection (where the operation inspects its process conditions before even starting production).
- The transformation from informative inspection that only provides feedback (i.e., it warns) to inspection that actually stops production or prevents it from even being started (when applied to source inspection).
The second journey is related to the process after problem detection. Here the quality department should accompany the organization in structurally eliminating the causes of the detected problems through a structured and disciplined problem-solving method and culture. Structured problem-solving is a craft in its own right and the quality department can very well position itself as the owner of the problem-solving methods and techniques within the organization. In that role it also should increase the autonomy of the organization in these methods and techniques. Please note that this does not imply that the quality department solves the problems of the operational teams, but that it takes care that these teams have sufficient autonomy in this area.
Besides, in my view, taking care that the countermeasures that are developed by the teams (at whatever level of the organization) are translated into proper standards and ensuring that the organization also verifies the respect of these standards are among the tasks of the quality department in a Lean organization.
The Future of the Quality Department
Quality departments that confine themselves to executive tasks, like final inspection, or that think that they themselves should audit the organization, or that concerns itself with documenting procedures or manuals for others are destined to perish in my opinion. Even the quality department that thinks it should improve the operations for others has not yet understood the true meaning of Lean.
Perhaps it sounds strange, but the quality department of the future is one that tries to make itself redundant. It focuses on the development of autonomy of the operational teams and its hierarchy in their delivery of a zero defect product and their efforts to reach this ideal state via continual improvement of their way of working. For more background I also recommend you read two earlier blog posts that I’ve written concerning autonomy and Lean in supportive functions.