People put a lot of weight on numbers, especially those that show significance in terms of accomplishment:
100 days in political office;
10,000 followers for a social media influencer;
100,000 likes for a viral post on the worldwide web;
1,000,000 units sold;
1 billion customers served by a fast-food chain.
But as much as we pay a lot of attention to quantity, we seem to pay less notice to quality.
What percentage of constituents were satisfied with the politician’s performance during his 100 days in office?
How frequent did followers visit the social media influencer’s website?
How many likes did the viral post author get for his other posts?
How many of the 1,000,000 units sold were defect-free or without complaints from buyers?
How many of the billion customers served were satisfied with the fast-food’s service?
We seem to have it in our human nature to celebrate quantity over quality.
Maybe it’s because quantity is easier to grasp and recognise.
It gets complicated if we say we sold 1,000 good quality items out of 1,050 produced. People will ask what happened with the 50 that didn’t make the cut? We’d end up explaining what we did wrong with 50 items rather than what we did right with 1,000 items.
It’s our nature to see the bad more than the good. Hence, just being one-dimensional, just by citing one simple number in quantity makes our achievements more tangible and easier to brag about.
We also like to celebrate streaks and trends. In sports, we take pride in winning so many games in a row. During the CoVID-19 pandemic, nations would tally how many days they had without a single infection and cite it as a reason to loosen restrictions, at least until one comes along and causes another lockdown.
We take what we can from quantities, streaks, and trends. But we will hesitate to appreciate ratios and quality statistics.
We’d prefer a manufacturing plant manager report employees worked 1,000,000 hours cumulatively without an injury rather than say there was one injury out of 2,000,000 man-hours registered. People would ask what was the injury and how and why it happened.
Still, we should ask ourselves: what are the benefits of reporting quantities, streaks, and trends? Is it to boast, make us look good, and build our reputations? Will it increase our influence resulting in something positive and tangible in return?
We sometimes focus a little too much on what’s it about for us when maybe we should be asking what good will it also be for them—the customers, the likers, the readers, and stakeholders.
This is my 100th blog post. Though I rather prefer the few readers who visit my site like what I wrote than how many I posted.
How can enterprises better control their supply chains? How does one know if the supply chain is under control in the first place?
A soy sauce manufacturer bragged about its wonderful customer service numbers. The manufacturer showed charts that it was delivering 98% of orders on-time and complete. There was no problem with quality as there was barely any rejections from customers.
Customers, however, were telling a different story. The manufacturer’s largest buyer, a supermarket chain, complained that orders were arriving at merely 65% of the time. Fill-rates or order completeness was averaging 50%, i.e., the corporation was delivering only half of the supermarket’s orders.
It was even worse with product quality. Soy sauce sachets were leaking at the supermarket’s shelves. The supermarket chain was pulling out damaged sachets every day.
This is a true-to-life story and one that is repeated countless times not only at supermarkets but across industries. An enterprise boasts outstanding sales numbers, excellent customer service, and second-to-none product quality. Customers in the meantime grumble about poor service and unsatisfactory quality and frequent out-of-stock. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Clearly there’s conflict and something should be done.
Supply chains are product and service streams in which materials flow, transform, and advance in value from their origins (sources) to their final stage as finished goods. A supply chain’s aim is to deliver products and services correctly and consistently. Correctly means delivering the right products and services that match customer demand and expectations. Consistently means delivering products and services correctly all the time.
To do things correctly and consistently, there has to be control. Control is the influencing and regulating of activities, the critical ones especially, to attain discipline in desired results.
Many firms, particular those that do manufacturing, utilise statistical methods to keep operations under control. One prominent method is the control chart.
Control charts makes visible the actual behaviour of operations versus what we would normally expect of them. The theory behind control charts is that results of most operations would follow a standard normal pattern, what statisticians call a normal distribution. Products as they are made would have characteristics that tend toward an average result. The variations between individual products would also follow an expected range, which statisticians measure as the standard deviation.
If items exhibit results that stray far from the average, that is, beyond the normal distribution curve, then chances are the operations making available the items have become erratic, or in other words, they are going out of control.
In the case of the supermarket chain and the issue of leaking soy sauce sachets, control charts can track the number of leaky sachets:
The control charts above are examples of what the leaky sachets can be like at the supermarket’s shelves every day of the week for sixteen (16) weeks. The control charts track the weekly average percentage of damaged sachets as well as the range or widest difference between daily samples.
The x̅ (average percentage) control chart shows close to an average 7.4% in leaking sachets while the R (range) chart shows an average variation of 0.4% between daily samples from each week.
Right away, management of both the supermarket chain and the manufacturing enterprise can see that at least 7 out of every 100 sachets are leaking on the shelves every week. For the soy sauce manufacturer’s executives, who pride themselves on their company’s reputation for zero defects, this is unacceptable.
But the point of the control charts wasn’t just to indicate how many sachets are leaking. The control charts showed that the percentage of leaking sachets was averaging 7.4% to 7.8%. The range (R) chart illustrates this variation, as differences between items varied at an average of 0.4%. This meant daily damaged sachets kept to a steady range between 7% to 8% of total.
There was an instance where one week’s average dropped to 7.2% and fell outside the control chart’s limits. Even as a drop in damaged sachets was a welcome sight, it was more of an exception. It wasn’t normal and the damaged average was not in normal control.
There were two (2) weeks in the R chart where variations spiked or narrowed outside the statistically set limits. This indicates samples on those two (2) weeks may have been gathered and computed differently or that operations in each of those two weeks were being done differently.
To put it as simply as possible, sachets are leaking daily at more than 7% average. From the consistency of the damages, one may speculate that the source of the damaged sachets is an operation at the soy sauce manufacturer’s facility.
It was later found that the manufacturer’s sachet packing machines weren’t sealing the soy sauce sachets 100% effectively. The sachets’ seals were deteriorating and opening as soon as the products left the soy sauce manufacturer’s premises. It was recommended the manufacturer refer the problem to their product research department to review packaging specifications and sachet production protocols. It was also suggested that the manufacturer and supermarket chain come up with common quality and service measures.
Control charts can be intimidating given the requirements to compute statistical numbers. But as much as one needs familiarity and initiative to set up control charts, they are not that difficult to make. The hard part usually is in identifying what specification or performance measure to chart.
But once they are established, control charts can be very useful as they provide instant feedback on how consistent and correct operational results are.
The whole point of supply chains is to deliver products and services correctly (matching customer expectations) and consistently (all the time). Being consistent and correct begins with being in control of the supply chain.
Quality is a strange subject. It’s strange because people talk about it a lot especially when they have a complaint or an admiration about a product or service. At the same time, people don’t seem to take it seriously especially when they settle for a cheaper product or service because they don’t have the budget to spend more for a better one.
Over the years there has been so much said and written about quality. A very long time ago, it seemed to mean something done well for a very reasonable price.
But as time passed and people produced a lot of all sorts of stuff, quality has seemed to become doing things just right. The price might go up but that’s because stuff became scarcer and not because it was made better.
Things of luxury would equate themselves as things of quality. Brands that price themselves higher than others would market themselves as brands of higher quality. Things that were made via a precisely painstaking process would consider themselves better quality than those made on a cheap assembly line. A Swiss hand-made timepiece would market itself as superior to a Japanese mass-produced watch, for example.
Quality lately seems to be influenced by the level of technology involved. A state-of-the-art mobile phone with a bigger, high-pixelated screen and a camera that can take breath-taking photos would be touted as the best in the market.
What should quality be, therefore? Some would say it should be about what customers want. It should be what customers specified. It should be what customers value. It should be in how it performs versus what it’s supposed to do.
The problem with these definitions is it would mean quality is about satisfying everything for every customer. As in everyone who buys the product. But can a product satisfy everyone?
In the first place, not all products are for everyone. All customers do not necessarily mean everybody. Products cater to a group. It can be a big group or a select group, but a group nonetheless.
Quality then means meeting specifications for that group. It means tailoring a product to a target market group.
I bought a bag of instant coffee sachets from the supermarket a few weeks ago. One morning, when I picked out a sachet from the bag to prepare a cup of coffee, I noticed that the notch where it says “Tear Here,” wasn’t there. There was no notch. I had to get a pair of scissors to make a notch of my own in order to tear the sachet open to pour the instant coffee to my cup.
Did the sachet fail in product quality? The coffee tasted fine. Would I still buy the coffee sachets next time? Yes, I would. The lack of a notch was a minor inconvenience. But it won’t prevent me from picking out the sachets again from the supermarket shelf. The price was within my budget and the coffee tastes better than the other coffee brands I tried before.
Other customers may do mind, however. They may find the experience of seeing no notch to tear as a major annoyance. What if a customer bought the sachet at a roadside cafe and as he looked forward to having a nice cup of coffee, he couldn’t tear the sachet because the notch wasn’t there? And because there wouldn’t be an available pair of scissors, he’d be stressed trying to tear the sachet open. The annoyed customer may swear he’ll never buy that coffee brand again. He’ll buy a competitor’s sachets next time to avoid a repeat of that stressful experience. He’d tell his friends and family members that he thinks the multinational corporation that marketed the coffee isn’t worth the trouble of buying products from. All because a tiny notch was missing where it should have been.
The perfect quality product is perhaps one that satisfies all of the customers’ needs and wants. But nothing is perfect. And how does one define specifications based on wants and needs of many customers? And how does an enterprise balance the attainment of the ideals of customers’ wants and needs with whatever capabilities it has at the moment?
The answers to these questions would be never-ending. But if there are to be working answers, they’d may be:
A product’s specifications are manifestations of the enterprise’s perceptions of what customers want. Therefore, enterprises should always be listening to customers for what they value from the products the enterprises sell. This is where market research is important. How a product sells over time would indicate how it’s meeting what customers want and need;
An enterprise should always maintain consistency of its product’s quality by keeping control of the operations that make and deliver the product. Consistency not only indicates control but also capability. How a product consistently meets its specs would naturally tell the enterprise what it’s capable of.
For the enterprise, quality is about meeting specifications. Specifications are the features that an enterprise translates from what it believes customers want. How well an enterprise bridges that belief with what customers really want determines its products’ quality reputations. The specifications should match customers’ values, the product should consistently meet the specs, and the customers prove both when they choose what to buy.