2017

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Emergency Response

Effective corrective action requires a quick, holistic approach

by Tim Kohart

While focusing on quality and achieving zero defects, organizations sometimes neglect discussing the inevitable—customer complaints. Few things are more aggravating to a customer than to wasting precious time waiting for a supplier to respond to a problem. Here are four suggestions based on lessons I have learned in my career:

1. Respond quickly. It is imperative to respond to a customer’s complaint quickly—immediately, if possible. Return the phone message or email as soon as you receive it, and use this as an opportunity to ask for clarification or obtain more information. Try to determine the scope of the issue and how many parts are actually affected. Ask for pictures and try to find out which lots of product are involved.

A customer’s initial description of a problem is sometimes misleading, which can lead your root cause identification down the wrong path. It is important that you ask probing questions to ensure you understand exactly what went wrong.

Even if it is discovered that your organization is not at fault, your willingness to be part of the problem-solving team will leave a lasting, positive impression on the customer.

2. Be visible. If possible, quickly get a representative on site at the customer’s location. Many of our customers are within a two-hour drive, but in today’s global economy, customers often can be on the other side of the world. In that case, there are still ways to get representatives to the customer’s location.

If the customer is a large multinational organization, your organization may have a facility closer to where the problem occurred. If so, personnel from your sister facility can potentially be deployed to react to the problem.

One of our customers is in another part of the United States—far enough away to make a fast, onsite response from us impossible. We do, however, have another plant very close to their facility. I have, more than once, amazed this customer by having a representative from our company on site to review a problem within the hour.

Another potential strategy, if you happen to have a big customer who is served by multiple plants from your organization, is to have a permanent onsite representative stationed at the customer’s facility.

3. Contain. Stop the problem from affecting the customer. Contain all suspect material at the customer’s facility, in transit and at your facility. Ensure containment is maintained until corrective action is in place and verified. If possible, agree on a distinguishing mark, such as a paint dot, to easily identify contained material.

Make sure that containment is properly performed and maintained, and that rejected or suspect product is segregated and placed in an area where it cannot be used for production. Recurrence of a quality issue due to containment being broken or failure to segregate nonconforming material is unacceptable.

4. Correct. Correct the problem and take steps to prevent it from recurring. Use tools such as the five whys, is/is not analysis, and cause and effect diagrams to identify the root cause. If possible, narrow down potential problems by introducing and removing a suspected root cause.

After the root cause is identified, take effective preventive action measures to ensure that the problem does not recur. Also, make sure that the corrective and preventive actions cascade to all other equipment and processes that could potentially be affected by the problem.

In my experience, many problems continue to occur because the preventive action step was neglected, ineffective or not properly disseminated to all potential areas.

Keep the customer informed as to the status of the corrective and preventive action process, and try to have all actions complete so you are ready to submit for closure within 30 days of being notified of the issue.

Despite our best planning, quality issues can still occur. Using these four suggestions will mitigate the problem for the customer and enhance your reputation as an effective and valuable supplier. In this light, problems can actually become opportunities to delight customers.


Tim Kohart is an engineering manager at Tenneco in Napoleon, OH, and an adjunct business professor at Defiance College in Ohio. Kohart holds a master’s degree in business from Defiance College. Kohart is a senior member of ASQ, and an ASQ-certified quality manager, auditor and engineer.


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