Training Tomorrow’s Quality Professionals

Help the next generation connect
the theoretical and practical sides of quality

by Hil McWhorter

After working for a cable manufacturer for a few years, I’ve learned that there are more than 100 failure modes that can occur at an extruder head, which is one small part of a much larger process. When my team encountered scratches on a cable, our new process failure mode and effects analyses (PFMEA) showed that there are more than 600 possible causes for a potential straight-line scratch. And with a line running at 800 meters per minute, it is nearly impossible to see the scratches happening in process.

This is what happened: An international customer reported scratches on a cable. The customer took pictures, which showed the cuts were in a perfectly straight line, and returned the cable. Upon receiving the cable, my junior quality engineer (QE) did his own evaluation of the product but could not find anything wrong. He went over every inch of the cable, but couldn’t pinpoint a single blemish. For every 10 meters of cable he pulled off, he convinced himself more and more of the customer’s blunder in sending back what appeared, to him, to be perfectly acceptable product.

The junior QE fully documented his findings and had the process engineer look at the cable to validate that nothing was wrong with the product from our company. He was about to email the customer, declaring there was nothing wrong, when I asked him why the customer would see scratches but we would not. We hypothesized about how the conditions could be different between how the customer was conducting its analysis and what we were doing.

The junior QE decided to roll the cable into the lab, which had more intense lighting, and check it again. This time, he came back ghost white, realizing he had almost made a mistake. Under the better lighting, he was able to see the scratches the customer was complaining about. The junior QE wrote the corrective action and listed his only root cause as a lack of lighting in the inspection area, and I was able to bring him back to the original problem.

It was with that prompt that I saw him connect the theoretical and practical sides of quality. He finally understood what I meant by true root cause, and the thirst for a more thorough root cause was born. Eventually, we had a great talk about PFMEA and how—as QEs and quality managers—we must work to hold people accountable before issues occur. We got a small group together to talk about what could have caused these scratches. I kicked off the meeting, but after a few minutes the QE took charge. He documented all the failure modes, and argued for what could be brought into our preventive maintenance system and what areas to add heightened detection to on the back end of our process. We ended with two-week, three-month and six-month punch lists of actions to complete.

These touchpoints with QEs have been some of the highlights of my career. Seeing people understand proper root cause analysis is satisfying and a major step toward building the next generation of quality professionals. You must look at the three basic questions of root cause analysis:

  1. What caused the defect?
  2. What allowed the defect to escape detection?
  3. What in the quality management system failed to consider this to begin with?

Creating that burning need to engage the tools we as managers have equipped our employees with and create a cross-functional team to dig into how to contain and prevent problems will prepare employees for a great career and make our jobs as managers much easier.

Hil McWhorter is a senior quality engineer at OFS Fitel in Carrollton, GA. He received an MBA from the Citadel in Charleston, SC. McWhorter is a member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified quality engineer.

A different perspective from a former cable QE.

This is a good example of where a Gauge RR could have helped identify the presence of the defect. Most cable cosmetic defect inspections pre-specify lighting conditions. If the customer lighting conditions were different from those specified (not under standard criteria), then the issue is the misunderstanding of specifications. I would begin there to determine and fix root cause. If the defect matters to the customer then negotiate 'different inspection guidelines' for that customer's product; and then adjust process and cost accordingly.
--Carol L Dixon, 05-11-2020

Thank you for the article. It is important to listen to and understand customer feedback from their perspective. Case studies and the lessons learned are important to communicate with the team. Awareness of a problem is the first step on the path to an appropriate solution.
--Jon Strein, 05-05-2020

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