The Smallest Steps Towards Quality Improvement

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

A white Chalk on a black board.

There is a story about a consultant, apocryphal perhaps, who charged $10,000 for putting a chalk mark on the part of a machine that was causing big problems for his customer. When the customer complained that the charge was excessive for such a short amount of work the consultant replied, “It’s $1 for the stick of chalk and $9,999 for knowing where to put the mark.” The point of the story is that the value is in knowing how to solve problems quickly and not in the amount of labor it takes to do so. This know-how comes from thousands of hours invested in the past and the fact that the consultant can now deliver this in a short amount of time should be seen as a value, not as shortchanging the client.

But there is another lesson here. In this case the consultant used what is perhaps the smallest step towards improvement: a single chalk mark. It may have been a line, a dot or an x but the point is that a long, fancy presentation was not required to pinpoint the cause of this particular problem. A written analysis of a problem and recommendation of countermeasures would be appropriate for larger, less visible or vague problems, but not to specify the part of the machine that was causing trouble.

It is in this spirit that one of our readers Junaid and his team made a quality improvement in their stitching process. There quality problems in the stitching process of seat covers. Some of the causes included:

  1. No identification mark to check stitch per inch during the stitching process
  2. No visual control for stitcher and supervisor
  3. Difficult and time consuming to set stitch per inch

The countermeasure was as simple as a stroke of a pen.

  1. Use I-mark to confirm 6 stitch per inch during stitching process
  2. Proper visual control for stitcher and supervisor
  3. Easy and quickly set stitch per inch before and during stitching

By placing I-marks on every variable knob the proper setting of machines became easier for the people operating the machines. By marking the nuts and bolts it became possible to know at a glance whether vibrations of the machines had loosened them, affecting quality of the process.

This pen-stroke solution is a great example of the smallest of steps we can take towards improving quality. The next steps may include making the using white-on-black or yellow-on-black marks to visually stand out, creating and posting one-point lessons around the machines, and starting an autonomous maintenance routine to prevent the marks fading or drift out of the target zone. These are just a few examples of the thousands of chalk marks that we can all make once we realize that the these smallest steps towards quality improvement are the most important ones in the long-term.

  1. Matt Wrye

    October 24, 2010 - 10:12 am

    There is nothing more rewarding than the simple solutions that are very low cost or no cost. I worked on a problem solving team one time where the root cause of contamination in the air scrubber was improper venting. While other engineers were wanting to spend several thousands of dollars on the venting system, I worked with an engineer that decided to hang a sheet of plastic to keep the contamination from getting in the air scrubber. Three hours later, the problem was gone. Simple, quick, and effective.

  2. sharma

    October 26, 2010 - 2:41 am

    Dear Jon,
    You never cease to amaze us!
    I will add “PRICE is what you pay, and VALUE is what you get”.
    I suggest Junaid, to make a full scale calibration around that switch from say 1 stitch/inch to 12 stitch/inch and also write the numbers around the switch.
    Pokayoke : make a test sheet 1 inches wide, and check the number of stitches, routinely so that the calibration does not drift.

  3. Chris Nicholls

    October 27, 2010 - 4:30 am

    Hi Jon
    What a good example from Junaid he tackled this problem with a very simple no cost solution.
    You can always improve on something and I think Sharma pointed out making a test sheet to check the calibration. He called it Poke-Yoke but this term means mistake proof or in its original form (Baka-Yoke) Idiot proof.
    Checking is not idiot proofing, my suggestion for Poke-Yoke is to fix the position of the dial at 6 spi with a locking screw.

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