Quality People, Stop Holding Product Hostage


Any process will inevitably generate nonconforming product at some point in its operation. Companies typically define the method for handling nonconforming product in a formal procedure that is part of their quality management system. As part of such a procedure, when nonconforming product is discovered, usually during the inspection step, it is quarantined. Two separate but related questions must then be answered: 1] What do we do with the nonconforming product? and 2] How do we prevent it from recurring?

I have observed a troubling pattern across multiple companies in how their quality control professionals are managing nonconforming product. They are holding it hostage—not allowing it to flow after it has been properly dispositioned—in order to compel others to comply with the other requirements of the formal procedure for handling nonconforming product. Specifically, the requirement to determine the root cause of the nonconformity and put in place countermeasures to prevent its recurrence.

I have also identified several reasons why quality control personnel are taking this counterproductive approach. Almost all feel, with good reason, that without it they cannot comply with all the requirements of the formal procedure or the standards and regulations they are designed to meet. They don’t believe that their coworkers are intrinsically motivated to take ownership for investigating the cause of the nonconformity and putting in place the appropriate countermeasures. Nor do they believe that they are externally incentivized to do so. And, of course, there are some quality control personnel who use this tactic to assert themselves in an environment that they feel otherwise does not respect them.

The effect of such behavior though is to reinforce the perception non-quality people have that quality professionals create blocks or bureaucratic hurdles instead of working with others to support the company’s objectives by helping to improve process and product quality. I wonder whether quality control personnel are aware that nonconforming product is still counted as inventory, and holding properly dispositioned nonconforming product hostage has a myriad unintentional consequences like lost sales, inaccurate accounting of assets, using up precious storage space, wasted manpower to monitor and manage the material, etc.

When people do give in to such arm-twisting, they do it with resentment, to meet a quality function demand, and not because they see the value in fixing the process. This is a pyrrhic victory. Pressured, resentful and motivated by the wrong goal, how thorough or accurate can their root cause investigation be? Countermeasures developed in response to sloppy cause analysis will at best address the symptoms of the nonconforming product. So recurrence is all but assured! And it’s quiet possible that these countermeasures may destabilize a process and increasing its variation leading to the creation of more nonconforming product.

Holding properly dispositioned nonconforming product hostage is not the right way to improve the performance of the nonconforming product handling process. Not only are you not adding value by doing that, your actions are costing the company. So please stop doing that. There are other better ways to improve the performance of quality system processes that support the company objectives.

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