Published: 9 Jul 2021

At EASE Inc, Chief Executive Eric Stoop says that layered process audits hold the key to greater product quality and a faster manufacturing recovery.

As UK manufacturing continues its recovery from the pandemic’s impact, its factory production growth is simultaneously being slowed by Brexit-hit supply chain disruption. Between Brexit and Covid-19, movement across borders has slowed. It’s clear that factories need to boost efficiency and productivity – and increasing quality is one way to do this. 

Greater quality is no longer optional; the UK government has announced that a new  ‘right to repair’ law  will come into effect this summer. In a bid to increase the life-span of electrical products, companies will, for the first time, legally have to make spare parts available to consumers. This places further pressures on supply chains and demands for quality on an already hindered manufacturing sector. 

Digitally transforming the UK’s factories 

To meet quality targets and increase efficiency with fewer resources, factories must embrace digital transformation. 

Research published in the 2019 Annual Manufacturing Report from industry journal. The Manufacturer suggests  74%  of manufacturers accept that they need to adopt digital technologies in order to prosper, but with the manufacturing industry hit hard by the current economic climate, the pace of change needs to be stepped up. 

One effective measure is the wider introduction of layered process audits (LPAs), which have been used by the automotive industry for many years and are now finding their way into other manufacturing sectors, including aerospace, medical devices, and consumer products. This has happened as quality leaders from the automotive industry migrate to other sectors and implement LPAs as a best practice at their new organisations, knowing they are a vital tool for increasing productivity and ensuring quality is maintained. 

What is an LPA? 

An LPA is a quality technique  that focuses on observing and validating  how  products are made, rather than inspecting  finished products. They are not confined to the quality department, but, instead, involve all employees in the auditing process. Supervisors conduct frequent process audits in their own area, while higher-level managers conduct the same audits less frequently and over a broader range of areas. 

LPAs help manufacturers and service providers take control of processes, reduce mistakes, and improve both work quality and the bottom line. But are they being used effectively by businesses, and is there enough awareness of how LPAs can benefit manufacturers by helping them standardise processes? 

I would argue there isn’t, but there needs to be to aid recovery and increase efficiency. 

LPAs help manufacturers and service providers take control of processes, reduce mistakes, and improve both work quality and the bottom line
Eric Stoop

The benefits of LPAs 

If you bake a cake, you follow the recipe. You set the oven to the temperature it says, and you know what ingredients to mix to get a controlled output. If you throw the ingredients together without the right recipe and process, you’ll be disappointed with the outcome. It’s the same philosophy in manufacturing. 

Organisations with robust LPA programmes in place see significantly lower rework and scrap, fewer warranty holdbacks, and a reduction in customer complaints. 

The underlying causes of most manufacturing issues are a lack of process standardisation, or a failure to follow these approved  processes. Defining these standards and creating systems that ensure those processes are followed correctly is key to improvement. 

By conducting multiple layers of the same audit, an LPA system helps ensure that it is being carried out accurately, because the auditors are essentially double-checking each other. By including multiple layers of management, the company also demonstrates  that quality is important to everyone. 

Creating effective LPAs 

Think back to the baking analogy; to create an effective LPA system, you must be constantly looking for opportunities to enhance the recipe and make it even better. 

Fundamental, make-or-break components of an effective LPA are the questions that auditors ask. A good LPA should have between 10 and 15 ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions focused on processes critical to quality, performance, or customer satisfaction. 

Many companies – particularly those using old paper-based checklists – rely on overly generic questions that yield limited insights. They do this so they can use the same checklist for multiple work areas, when a best-practice approach is to create separate checklists for each area. However, even a well-written LPA is nothing if it’s not embraced by the workplace. 

It’s important with any manufacturing process, but especially with LPAs, that you foster a culture in which good quality is rewarded and championed, rather than bad quality punished. Everyone needs to be on board to succeed, taking pride in carrying out LPAs and actively making suggestions on how they can be improved. That starts with leadership. 

Leadership buy-in 

Leadership buy-in will be achieved by stressing the importance of preventing quality mistakes before they happen – as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  

LPAs involve several layers of leadership participating in audits – in some cases, all the way up to the highest levels of management that are regularly present at a plant. So, not only does leadership see how processes are being followed in real time, but their participation reinforces that quality is a top priority for the company and boosts morale on the shop floor. 

By digitalising LPAs with layered process audit software, and making them a key part of a factory’s digital transformation, this real-time data can be delivered to plant-floor decision-makers as it is needed. It can also give greater management visibility and, ultimately, engage employees.  

This digital transformation, driven by LPAs, can power a swifter and stronger recovery for our manufacturing industries, but it starts with people. If we can create collaborative, positive factory environments – where people of all levels strive for quality, underpinned by strong process and technology – UK manufacturing can shake off the COVID and Brexit shackles, fire up its engines, and emerge better and stronger for it. It’s time to act, before any more damage is done.