Adding Value Through Quality Improvement
by Brian Beatty – Director, Engineering Services
Early in my career, I was skeptical of formalized processes for quality improvement. I sided with those who argued that there’s just not enough time or people to spare for that sort of thing. Our whirlwind business gets overwhelming at times, leaving no room for a formal quality process. However, I didn’t close the door entirely on the concept and, thanks to some training and excellent mentoring, I eventually came to understand the positive impact that quality improvement has on an organization.
In my experience, really good companies do not focus so much on past performance as on what they need to do to get better. I include NAES on that list. Our mission at Engineering and Technical Services is to provide the expertise to make our clients’ plants run better, and quality improvement (QI) needs to be an integral part of that mission.
In building its culture of continuous improvement, NAES has developed and institutionalized certain QI processes. We view these as daily activities as well as key business functions. Whether it is the seven-step ‘QI story’ process or more advanced Six Sigma regimen, there is no doubt that continuously pursuing a QI process will cut O&M costs, reduce waste and improve reliability. It positively
affects our clients’ bottom line and our own as well. From a marketing perspective, continuous improvement is a key discriminator that distinguishes us from our competitors.
However, the benefits extend well beyond financial results. The QI process employs logical problem-solving techniques that keep teams focused on their goals. It reinforces use of statistical and analytical tools, enhances communication and understanding within an organization, and provides a standard process to follow even for people who have no prior QI training. Last but certainly not least, it builds trust with our clients.
Creating a ‘QI story’ offers a simple, seven-step process for solving a problem and a standardized way to communicate team progress:
- Reason for Improvement: Why is this problem important? What is our pain? For example: recurring equipment failure, high forced outage rate, environmental exceedance, etc.
- Current Situation: What do we currently know about the problem? What are its vital few features? Set a target for improvement.
- Analysis: Get to the root cause of the problem and its verification.
- Countermeasures: What improvements have we considered and which ones will we implement to produce the best results?
- Results: How are we doing since implementing the countermeasures? Are there any parts of the problem that remain?
- Standardization: Prevent recurrence of the problem: identify and share best practices across the company.
- Future plans: Share lessons learned and identify what to work on next. Have new QI stories come to light in the course of completing this one?
This format helps you characterize the actual problem, find its root cause, prevent its recurrence and determine lessons learned from it. Often, in the course of solving one problem with this technique, other problems surface that lead to follow-up QI stories. This is how we perpetuate the process of continuously learning to be better.
There are seven basic problem-solving tools that will help you work up a QI story:
· Check sheet: A form used to collect real-time quantitative or qualitative data.
· Pareto chart: This graphic tool quickly identifies the biggest contributors to a problem – for example, 80 percent of the pain is caused by 20 percent of the issues.
causes of a problem; it allows you to drill down into the real root cause by asking ‘why’ five times.
- Histogram: A type of bar graph that displays how continuous data is distributed.
- Scatter Diagram: A graphic that displays two variables in a set of data and helps determine how one variable correlates with the other
- Control Chart: A chart that determines whether a process is in control; it consists of a line graph with a target and upper and lower specification limits.
- Stratification: Separating data gathered from a variety of sources to identify patterns: e.g., a flow chart helps you understand complex processes; a run chart helps you visualize process data over time.
Just three of these seven basic tools. Using all seven will typically solve 95 percent. However, it’s important to avoid the following pitfalls:
- Addressing problems that are too large or poorly defined – solving world hunger, for example.
- Failing to involve the right people.
- Jumping to solutions before analyzing the problem.
- Failure to communicate findings and actions to the right people.
- Tackling problems that are beyond the influence of the team.
Conducting a stakeholder’s review before initiating the QI story process will help you avoid these pitfalls and ensure that your efforts are well conceived.
Using this ‘QI story’ approach to solve problems is a great way to engage your team’s talents, bring additional value to your client and enhance NAES’s stature in the industry. I welcome further discussion of how the E&TS group can pursue the quality improvement mission.