Many branches of industry have completely changed over the past few years as a result of digitalization. What exactly does this translate to in the long-term for quality management? Dr. M. Sc. Anni Koubek, specialist author and authorized officer with full power of attorney at Quality Austria, explains how important agility and teamwork are in this process.
We live in an accelerated world; indeed, it’s often termed a “VUCA” world as it’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambivalent. Advancing digitalization radically changes the economy and all of our lives. Usually, we can adapt well to change. If we look back, PCs have only been available for 37 years, GPS controlled navigation devices have been around for 27 years and smartphones have been present for just 20 years. Today, our day-to-day routine is based on inventions and modified manufacturing and operating structures which were only created in the very recent past. We now use apps which enable us to shop conveniently from home and shape cooperation within our jobs by enabling us to organize international web meetings.
Digitalization is not a new trend – we are right in the middle of a change that is at different levels of advancement in different industries and areas of society. E-Commerce and digital production centers for manufacturing have thus been achieving state-of-the-art status for some time now, and these branches of industry have changed accordingly. New global companies have been created as a result of new technology, and other market leaders have collapsed in milliseconds for the same reason.
Furthermore, digitalization is not a trend that is limited to a few sectors; it envelops all sectors. The options are changing too much, whether they be in manufacturing (for example customizing, 3D printing), in industrial production (smart factories, automated maintenance) or business models (product service systems, condition monitoring) for performing services (automation, bots) or distribution channels.
Currently, there is nothing to indicate that this trend is slowing down. The performance of computers is still rising exponentially while costs are simultaneously being reduced (Moore’s law). This means that modes of technology that will probably bring even greater changes to our private and working lives than those we have seen over the past 20 years are becoming possible. As with every snowballing trend, the developments begin slowly. The first new market competitors pay a lot of money to learn, and what they learn, from hard experience, is that nothing much seems to come of it. However, once the solutions are mature, market developments suddenly happen very quickly and it can then be too late for latecomers to get on board. Within these altered conditions, we need to develop the way in which we ensure and advance quality. Just as digitalization takes a wide variety of forms, QM systems also need to set up their new foci so that they can vary.
Digitalization has a particularly significant impact on production. Existing efforts to automate processes must be implemented at speed, production and logistics need to be connected even more optimally. Automated systems which manufacture individual products both enable and require a new path to quality for products and processes. Optimizing processes using classic process capability analyses, based on Cp and Cpk values, makes little sense for low-volume production series, where statistical KPIs cannot be applied in a significant manner. Here, quality is already tested and simulated at the development stage. Cooperation between quality and innovation departments, who have generally only had very little contact with each other previously, is a key factor here.
Social media is a key topic in digitalization when it comes to interacting with your consumers. Social media, and the data that it makes available, gives you new opportunities to measure and understand customer behavior, customer satisfaction and customer enthusiasm. The concept of “Feedback from customers”, which, up until now, was often simply reduced to complaints management and customer satisfaction surveys, gains new meaning. Only businesses that understand their customers and recognize their constantly changing desires and needs will be able to respond in accurate and successful ways. The issues of data security and ethics crop up in this topic: How far can we go to understand our customers? And how much do we want to understand them? To what extent will customers accept personalized product suggestions that replicate their behavior better than they understand it themselves?
In the Internet of Things, products are produced at home using 3D printers and the manufacturing process itself is thus no longer directly controlled by the industry. Production therefore transforms into (software) development with finite element simulation, and the product sold is a software code. This means that software quality assurance and software development methods are increasingly creeping into broad sections of the the manufacturing industry. The implementation of agile methods, automated test procedures and iterative design cycles are typical approaches that should pad out the methods used in quality departments.
IT systems are also automating routine office processes and routine decisions more and more. It’s no longer a question of whether IT systems should be implemented but rather of how well they are integrated. The tasks that a quality manager once used to carry out for a company can now be switched to IT. How do IT systems fit into the processes? Process performance is constituted from the following factors: automated interfaces, data security and data integrity. Data integrity is not an especially technical element here, but rather concerns the logical correctness and validity of data across various applications and beyond. Equally, people are needed to develop, implement and control these products, services and processes. The expertise of individuals and lone companies is generally not enough to develop these complex high-tech systems. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly important to work in teams and include other companies in cooperative projects.
Many of the basic principles of quality management, such as customer focus and leadership, remain essential for success. The revision of ISO 9001 has already set the first milestones for the VUCA future in dealing with the topics of context, risk-based approaches and change.
Furthermore, companies should check whether their quality management is armed to face the current challenges in the following three areas at the least:
1 Is quality management a digital trailblazer or a latecomer in the company?
Companies are working on connecting their IT systems and ensuring data integrity. This applies far beyond the operative core processes: It extends to all areas of the company and across the entire supply chain. We can find a wide range of levels of digitalization in practice within quality management: In some companies, quality assurance tasks and methods (supplier assessments, FMEAs, corrective actions, action lists, inspection plans, work instructions etc.) are digital and integrated into the core processes. Others construct specific CAQ systems, and there are still many companies that use stand-alone applications or maintain isolated tables and text templates. The more complex the company, the more difficult it is to maintain an overview of the wide range of individual measures, track their implementation and understand the results. The closer quality assurance and improvement tasks are to core business, including in terms of IT integration, the more attention the persons involved tend to pay to them.
2 Does quality management promote agility?
The accelerated digital world offers an array of opportunities that should be taken in a targeted manner. Design cycles for products and services are becoming shorter, more and more products contain software and it is increasingly important to provide customized solutions. Often, the objective is not clear at the beginning of a project. The solution space has so many opportunities that the customer has no clear idea of the perfect solution. This means that mutual understanding of the tasks, visions of the future and potential technical solutions needs to be established together in a team. This does not just apply to products for customers, but also goes for internal processes and methods, especially when they are IT supported.
The software industry began to use altered development methods (similar to the agile manifesto) 20 years ago in order to keep up with these requirements. These methods are still only occasionally used in quality management. Often, planning is taken to mean fixed, waterfall-type project structures, where changes to goals or setbacks are not planned for and users and internal clients are not especially involved. Indicators which spotlight how far a task has been fulfilled can reinforce this effect. Here, quality managers should take up the new tools in order to be able to implement these in actual situations when configuring systems.
3 Is quality management a team task?
In a complex work environment where new demands are created constantly, it is unlikely that a single person could cover all aspects with sufficient effectiveness. Creating quality for customers is a complex task. Equally, creativity, teamwork and working with many companies are also becoming increasingly important. In these teams, roles are administered according to the activity. A rigid hierarchical structure in which decisions are made by the highest ranking people rather than the most expert puts blocks on the process. For complex configuration themes in quality management, cooperative creative work is required of the people involved in the process. Projects like these can’t simply be broken down into individual tasks using a work flow. This means that the quality manager’s role should be well integrated into the value-added processes. Only then can a quality manager support and safeguard innovations and changes within the company.
This requires good understanding in order to decide which tasks are considered quality tasks and which are considered routine tasks. The routine should increasingly be handled with computer support in order to ensure process reliability. In any case, configuration-related topics need a team with agility and creativity. Ultimately, digitalization gives quality management a few challenges, and quality managers need to respond to these challenges appropriately for their respective sector, supply chain and competitive environment. In many companies, methods and tools need to be completed or further developed. This doesn’t mean that quality management is becoming obsolete, but rather the opposite. Right now, in an era of offers customized products and services, short innovation cycles and the diversity of the digital options out there, it is essential that quality, or the fulfillment of the diverse, complex requirements is systematically embedded into the organization. To achieve this, we need quality managers that have mastered the traditional methods and are also able to exploit the opportunities offered by digitalization.
Dr. M. Sc. Anni Koubek
Dr. M. Sc. Anni Koubek heads the Innovation and Business Development Quality Department at Quality Austria and is also an authorized officer with full power of attorney. She is a recognized expert and is in charge of the coordination of the entire product portfolio and innovation process, of cooperation with universities and research institutes and of evaluation services in the academic sector. She took an active role in the international task force revising ISO 9001 and is an eminent author of several specialist works on quality management.
This article has drawn on the expertise of several people. Thank you to Wolfgang Pölz, Hannes Russegger, Konrad Scheiber, Franz Peter Walder and Alexander Woidich for discussing this article with me and their comments on it.
Quality Austria is one of the leading Austrian certification bodies for integrated management systems, building on quality, environmental, security and occupational health and safety management, as well as the topic of corporate quality. System and product certification, along with training and personal certification, constitute their core areas. Together with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Economy and Labor, Quality Austria awards the Austrian Quality Award and grants the Austrian Quality Seal. Furthermore, the organization publishes a great deal of literature and actively participates in standards committees and international networks.