Many organizations complain about having difficulty maintaining standards on the shop floor.  We often make improvement only to find the process regresses back to its previous state in a short period of time.  A closer look at the audit process will often show the following types of symptoms:

  • Standard work is posted, but no one is following it. The sequence, timing, and content of work changes within each operator as well as from one operator to another.
  • There are inconsistencies in incoming materials that cause over processing at the workstation and overburden to operators. This may lead to defects and operational delays.
  • Poorly designed products and processes that cause unevenness and overburden.
  • 5S is not maintained or consistent between one shift and another.
  • Uncontrolled tools and materials are squirreled away in cabinets as a result of hoarding for just in case reasons.
  • Non-conforming materials are not properly identified which exposes the operation to risk.

These issues may indicate a general lack of management oversight of the process. Management oversight may typically occur in the form of system audits, control point checklists, or other structured reviews of the operation. An audit is essentially a check on the system to see that activities are being performed to a standard or target condition. Just saying the word “Audit” will often strike a nerve in most managers because it seems contradictory to creating value in the organization. Audits do not meet all the requirements to be considered value added. The customer is typically not willing to pay for internal audits except in certain situations. The physical product or service we provide does not change as a result of conducting the audit. In addition, the reason why we are doing the audit in the first place is because we can’t get the activity right the first time. By definition, audits are non-value added. However, they are essential in many organizations to prevent backsliding as well as ensuring the process continues to move forward. Here are some tips that will help you correctly frame and communicate the audit as an important management tool.

Perform audits frequently. Many companies that perform audits on the production system do not conduct them at a frequency great enough to be able to detect variation in the 4Ms. For example, material variation may initially be slight and the operator of a process may deviate from standard work methods to adjust for the variation. Eventually this leads to habit in which standard work is no longer being followed. This creates an even greater potential for error.  Frequent observations will shorten the detection time on slight variation. If the process in question is a production line and operator rotation is a standard practice, then audits should target at least every operator on every rotation weekly. In order to sustain this high frequency of auditing, it is important to train and bring other key functional areas into the process.

In many organizations, the line supervisor has the responsibility for auditing to ensure that structures and processes such as standard work, 5S, safety, and quality checks are adhered to. The supervisor is usually the only one who is knowledgeable enough about the process to make these observations. This results in a narrow organizational view of the process. By providing cross functional involvement of the support staff, the collective perspective and experience of the broader organization is integrated into the process directly at the point of value added. For example:

  • Human resources should be observing the process to ensure that health & safety as well as processes for training and operator certification are functioning as planned. They should also be observing that the basic team structure is providing the operator with the necessary support needed to provide value through operator engagement and solicitation of ideas.
  • Engineering should be observing and auditing to ensure that product and process design is capable of producing high quality products or services with the highest repeatability.
  • Quality should be auditing the process with an emphasis on how well the quality system is being adhered to at the operator level. This includes defect tracking, error proofing, adherence to quality key points, etc.

When the functional staff finds a deviation from a standard, this should be considered as an opportunity to do several things. First of all, it provides a method for calibration and coaching. When outside eyes see that a supervisor has only recorded good observations in the past, this becomes a coachable event. Why do they not see the same deviation? Coaching the supervisor on how to observe the process from different perspectives will build capability on the front line. Secondly, it provides the functional staff with a structured process for direct observation. This allows them to see how well the part of the system that they are directly responsible for is designed and functioning. A quality manager during the audit of the process may observe operators fixing defects without properly notifying others or documenting problems. This would indicate that the system is not working to surface problems. In addition, if a product engineer sees that all operators are struggling with a certain assembly task, the product or process can be redesigned as needed. This will reduce overburden on operators and the potential for errors.

Auditing serves the critical function of surfacing and solving systemic problems. To maximize audit effectiveness, conduct audits frequently to detect variation in the 4 M’s prior to the creation of defects. Expand auditing to other functional groups beyond supervision to gain multiple perspectives as to how well the process is designed and being adhered to. A cross functional audit team will provide for integrated solutions that strengthens the total system.