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Driving quality excellence in 2021

Published: 15 Feb 2021

Eric Stoop, CEO at EASE Inc – a developer of plant floor audits and insights software in the US – provides his top five tips to help manufacturing businesses overcome the obstacles posed by Covid-19.  

As the UK’s manufacturing sector continues its recovery, a feeling of optimism is spreading throughout the industry as vaccines against Covid-19 continue to be rolled out. And while this creates a mixed picture for the sector, and it remains unclear how 2021 will play out, there are some considerations that will remain constant for the year ahead.

In any scenario, quality has a large part to play in determining which companies come out strong and which ones may struggle. This article examines what quality leaders must prioritise, and how to meet the challenges to build a stronger, better manufacturing organisation overall.

Health and safety

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, employee safety remains the number one priority that quality leaders must focus on. Beyond the personal impacts of Covid-19 on workers and their families, manufacturers must also keep in mind the impact the virus has on productivity, potential liabilities and costs.

Guidance on how to provide a safer plant environment is changing all the time as the virus itself evolves, but not keeping pace with the latest government instructions could result in significant financial penalties for the business, or even criminal prosecution under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. However, given how unprecedented the pandemic is, it is unlikely this will be enforced in most cases.

It’s also worth noting that, at this time, the latest round of pandemic relief does not include liability protections for employers, underscoring the importance of frequent checks to reduce Covid-19 business risks.

Digital transformation

The second major priority for quality leaders this year should be digital transformation, especially in light of pandemic-related staffing shortages and the potential changes in demand.

Management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, notes that the adoption of Industry 4.0 is becoming a critical differentiator between “technology haves and have nots”. Accelerating digital transformation is making some companies more resilient to fluctuating market conditions, while those who sit on the sidelines only stand to fall further behind.

One strategy McKinsey points out is implementing what they call “quick-win solutions” such as technology to ensure safe distancing on the plant floor. Technology such as mobile audit software is one example, as it allows companies to verify compliance with safety protocols while also reducing defects.

Addressing the skills gap

Deloitte’s Skills Gap in Manufacturing study (2018) projected that the skills gap could put $2.5tr (USD) in manufacturing GDP at risk in 2018. This means addressing the shortage should be a key priority in the coming year. What’s more, the ability to implement new technologies (eg, artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and Internet of Things) relies on having the skilled workers to run and handle the equipment.

Interestingly, while the manufacturing sector has seen recent job losses, many positions still remain unfilled due to the skills shortage. How can quality professionals have an impact on solving this industry challenge? Strategies to consider include:

  • Improving compensation packages;
  • Offering additional training, professional development and promotion opportunities;
  • Investing in upskilling workers to drive digital transformation;
  • Incorporating modern technologies to make careers in quality more attractive to the next generation of manufacturing professionals.

Improving operational efficiency

Reducing operational costs will remain a top concern for many organisations as they navigate their way through the pandemic. Improving operational efficiency is the key to doing more with less, ensuring businesses don’t lose their hard-won gains through indiscriminate cuts that put key goals at risk.

In any manufacturing plant, a hidden factory exists that continually works against standardisation, quality and efficiency. A commitment to uncovering hidden factory elements such as undocumented process steps and versioning errors through ongoing verification can improve transparency, by revealing processes that work against quality and efficiency, creating invisible roadblocks to strategic goals while driving up costs.

Again, it’s an area where digital technologies can help raise visibility, both in terms of identifying problems and highlighting how quality contributes to productivity.   

Ensuring quality

Twenty-twenty was a turbulent year, and if there’s one thing that’s for sure about 2021 is that it will involve change. This includes changes in products, how people work together and even potential changes in the trajectory of the manufacturing industry as a whole.

Amid all this change, manufacturers will be faced with the central challenge of maintaining a high level of quality. Product safety and customer satisfaction are as important as ever in the new normal, with the stakes so much higher as companies compete for a smaller piece of the pie.

Managing new products, fewer staff and increased distancing will become a critical capability. Tools such as layered process audits (LPAs) can help keep a finger on the pulse of quality while achieving production targets. Plus manufacturers can incorporate safety related audit questions to ensure Covid HSE requirements are being adhered to. Executed correctly, LPAs can sharply reduce defects and quality costs relatively quickly, but these high-frequency audits can also bury companies in administrative work and unstructured data if they try to execute them without a robust plant floor audit platform.

All things considered, quality professionals have a crucial role in how the manufacturing industry continues its comeback. By focusing on strategies such as digital transformation, safety, operational efficiency and closing the talent gap, companies can continue to make strides and set a course for operational excellence in 2021.

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