Thoughts on Quality and Precision Ground Bars
Posted on November 09, 2020 by Miles Free, Director, Industry Affairs, Precision Machined Products Association
How can we know what quality is if we cannot define it?
In the Quality and Performance Management class that I teach in Walsh University’s MBA program, one of the first questions that I pose to my class each term is “What is Quality?”
This is a seemingly easy question, and yet I find that even on Zoom meetings, we can spend the better part of an hour exploring what it is that we mean by “Quality.”
Another question that I ask my students is “Who is the customer?” Again, this is easy to answer in most retail situations, but when we start looking at industries such as Healthcare, this becomes quite difficult to determine.
These two questions are linked, as it is my theory that it is the customer, and only the customer, that determines the quality of our product or service. This comes as quite a shock to some students - especially those whose career has been in a quality control function. “Of course, I know what quality is, I’m in Quality Control. I do (X, Y, or Z) and that determines the quality of the product.” That is what my students say.
But really what is quality, and why do I insist that it is only the customer that can determine it?
One popular definition of quality, a classic from the 1970’s when I first joined the workforce, is “Quality is conformance to requirements.” This was popularized by Phillip Crosby. In those days, the goal of quality control was to identify defects, prevent them from reaching the customer, and the measurement of quality was in terms of non-conformances which were always greater than the zero defects that are expected today.
In the 1980’s, the quality revolution from Japan elevated the offering of Japanese products, and Western companies lost significant market share to the Japanese. I lost my job as a Laboratory Supervisor at a major American steel company due to the downsizing resulting from Japanese steel companies making huge inroads at our customers because it was “better quality.”
My personal experience, then, proves the first point - that it is the customer that determines quality. And their decision to purchase is in fact their determination of quality - and it goes beyond mere conformance to requirements. The steel that my US mill made met all specification requirements, yet the customers chose the other steel. There is more to quality than conformance to requirements.
So now that we know that it is the customer that determines whether a product is “quality” or not, and that the proper measurement of Quality is not “nonconformances” but rather market share, how can we get to a better definition, a working definition of quality that will help us as producers, as manufacturers? The definition of conformance to requirements did not serve us well in the 1980’s when the customers chose the imported materials rather than ours.
Defining Quality, the Work of Quality
So, what is quality, if it is not just conformance to requirements? Quality is the absence of waste. Customers can recognize waste in a product or service being offered, choosing to purchase the product that offers them the least waste. That this is an economic determination should not be surprising, as that extra waste results, in their mind, in their process, in extra costs. They choose quality based on lowest cost to them - which means not having to pay for unnecessary waste.
Identifying and eliminating waste is the work of quality. But in fact, it is everyone’s job. And while we cannot identify quality - that is for the customer to determine - we can as professionals identify waste. We can identify those things that are not value added. And we can improve our processes to eliminate them. This is continuous improvement, the fundamental principle underlying Lean.
Precision Ground Bars - Demonstrating Value of Absence of Waste
So why all this talk of quality and removing waste in a blog about precision ground bars? The interesting thing about the precision grinding process is that it is, by design, all about eliminating waste. It is about eliminating those aspects of the product that do not add value. With centerless grinding, the bar is trued up in terms of shape (concentricity), and material that is out of d tolerance is removed. It is a process that eliminates the uncontrolled random surface imperfections from regular production material, leaving instead a precise, controlled surface that is uniform. It removes material that is not needed and above the dimensions for the product purchased, improving both dimensional tolerance as well as dimensional consistency. The precision grinding process eliminates the waste of the bars lacking suitable straightness for your process as a customer, by straightening them to higher standards than routine processes. This permits running them at higher feeds, as well as assuring that they feed reliably - due to their consistent straightness, surface finish concentricity and straightness, reducing waste in the machining process.
Each of these aspects of the grinding process adds value to the final product by eliminating waste, by subtracting material. This is, in my opinion, the perfect process embodiment of the work of quality - identifying and eliminating waste in the products provided to our customers.
What is quality? Quality is the absence of waste. And if my reasoning is correct, a ground bar is the perfect embodiment of this definition of quality.