Human Limitations in your ISO9001-2008 quality management system

Recently I participated in a client meeting discussing revisions to their quality objectives. One of their objectives is to have 99 percent on-time shipping. For 2011 they actually exceeded their objective and shipped 100 percent of their orders on time. This is no mean feat- this is a company that ships about over 1000 orders per year, with orders ranging from one item the size of a bus, to thousands of items that will fit in the palm of your hand. They take their quality objectives seriously, and have the performance to prove it.

As we do every year, we reviewed the company’s quality objectives with an eye toward revising them for continual improvement. But how do you improve on perfection? Do you scrap the quality objective since you can’t improve on it? In this case, no. We still want to measure on-time delivery performance, it’s that important. We’ll never improve on 100 percent on-time delivery, but we definitely want to keep measuring our performance.

In this case, we added other quality objectives to the quality management system, to help improve the quality of parts produced, reduce the number of rejections, and reduce the amount of time required to produce items. We shifted the focus of continual improvement to a different area. The company will continue to show improvements in quality and customer satisfaction, but now we’ll be looking at areas we haven’t focused on in the past.

Another client stamps out hundreds of millions of small parts every year. One of their quality objectives is to have a reject rate of 80 parts per million or less. Given the complexity of the parts they produce, 80 bad parts out of a million is not easy to achieve. But they did it last year. Do we honestly expect to improve on that goal by very much? We dropped the objective to 70 parts per million, which of course will be much more difficult to achieve.

So what happens down the road? We run into human limitations at some point.

One example of where we reach human limitations is in cell phones. The human head has so many inches between the mouth and ear, and this dimension is not likely to change any time soon. Human fingers are also a certain size, also unchangeable. Human eyes cannot focus on screens much smaller than what we have today. So this has limited how small cell phones have become. Instead of focusing effort on making cell phones even smaller, manufacturers have turned their focus into adding more features for the same size.

We humans are not perfect. It’s usually not a good use of resources for a company to devote a lot of time and money to achieve perfection. Once you’ve achieved a certain level of excellence, which only you can decide on, its often best to focus improvement efforts on new areas.

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