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Custom Characterizing Quality in Hardware Engineering Essay

The client organization has a long history of equipment design, manufacture, sales and servicing.  The products produced include hardware, software and solution services widely used in commercial settings by consumers.  There are a variety of machines produced, creating added complexity to the supply chain.  The majority of the client’s customers are large commercial operations with experienced and knowledgeable procurement organizations.

The client organization operates globally with over 3,000 design engineering personnel located in over seven locations around the world.  There have been a series of major reorganizations and office relocations in the past decade.  The company’s headquarters, where it had been located for over 100 years, was changed three years ago resulting in large layoffs and relocations.  Several staff continue to commute every week over 500 miles from the old location to the new headquarters.  Personnel turnover is higher than the industry average especially in their Asian facilities.

Over the firm’s long history there have been references to the product development systems being world class before these organization changes.  The disruptions of the changes have left several pockets of excellence throughout the company but with little practice continuity between the design locations.  The products designed and delivered are of average quality and reliability.  There are however, no systems in place to baseline product quality in new product development process.  This makes quality improvements difficult to confirm and sustain.

The culture of the development organization is one of professionalism, technical excellence and pride in design.  There is not wide agreement on the need to implement a quality tracking system within the development community.  There are some individuals in leadership which do support the idea and there is wide support in the executives of the organization.

Organization behavior is very functionally oriented with departmental priorities dominating each groups focus.  The result is low collaboration between the major functional groups like Engineering, Manufacturing and Sales and Marketing.  These behaviors result in low visibility of the functional area performance metrics like product quality.  By having low visibility there are less incidents of finger pointing that another group is creating problems for the next group.  There is little reward in highlighting areas for improvement. 

With the major layoffs and site closures there is also low trust between the geographic locations in the firm.  Each site is protective of its own knowledge and responsibilities.  The belief that if local knowledge is not shared, job security remains higher.  This belief is of limited effectiveness because the company has shown the practice of forcing change anyway.  Strong leadership ensures that the important activities remain in focus and the business priorities are met.  It is not uncommon for the highest level executives to lead operational problem solving meetings to ensure the organization responds to business critical issues.  The business runs very lean with most orientation toward problem resolution.  This action oriented low communication environment will present a challenge to identifying and deploying a global product quality metric which communicates across geographical locations and different functional groups.

Project Purpose:

The purpose of this project is to design and apply an intervention which uses  positive collaboration between functional groups and different geographic locations to identify and deploy a quality metric within the Hardware Engineering Group of the client organization.

The Project Question :

How to define quality in a hardware engineering environment and implement a system to baseline performance and enable improvement?

My Interest in this Project :

This project is very appealing to me because it combines several challenges and opportunities within it.  The project is a real operational challenge facing my client organization, set in the context of several compounding organizational situations making the project complex and interesting.

Several of the organizational challenges that make the project interesting for me include:

  • The high level of change experienced by the organization in the past five years.
  • A challenging environment including low cross-functional collaboration and communication.
  • The low visibility of current quality reporting.
  • The opportunity to apply change practices in an engineering organization environment.
  • The opportunity to combine intervention methods to address the complex challenges.
  • The opportunity to build openness across the organization.
  • The opportunity to improve the focus of current resources.
  • Support the growth of a data and information decision making organization.

Problem Statement:

How to create a product quality metric and implement a system to baseline performance to enable improvement in a hardware engineering organization environment by using a Six Sigma based organization intervention.

Guiding Questions:

  1. What type of intervention can be effective in an environment of high change?
  2. What approach to the project will work best where there is low cross-functional collaboration and low communication?
  3. What Organization Development intervention approach works well with an engineering community?
  4. How to get an accurate understanding of the current product quality situation within Hardware Engineering?
  5. How can interventions be combined to address the multiple complexities in the project environment?

Literature Review:

This project is focused on building alignment amongst a broad group of hardware development engineers and some cross-functional stakeholders to identify opportunities for measuring product quality through the engineering and new product development process.  The broad geographical distribution of the team members and the low collaboration between different functional groups are barriers to identify and build an effective product quality metric for the client organization. 

The literature review will seek a balance between building an approach to meet the technical goal of the project to build a quality metric for product quality in hardware engineering and the intervention to maximize participation and input.   To achieve this balance, the appropriate organization development intervention will be designed to effectively engage the engineering team and build the collaboration, openness and trust to identify a successful solution.

The framework for building the intervention strategy and applying it to the project will be Action Research that will frame the inquiry in a form of systematic, self-critical inquiry.  This will include a process of asking questions about the situation and the practice to address the multiple dimensions of the change process.  The framework for the Action Research approach will include (Capobianco, 2008):

  • Identify a starting point;
  • Develop a plan of action;
  • Collect data;
  • Analyze and interpret;
  • Reflect; and
  • Disseminate

The starting point for the project is understanding the organizational context and building an intervention to address the multiple factors to be managed in the project execution.

Organizations achieve results through a combination of people and processes supported by technology (Jeffery, 2005).  For this project the people are the knowledge experts that know the product, the engineering activities and the potential areas for product quality measurement.  The process for this project includes both the behavioral and operational activities followed to realize the desired outcome.  In this project the goal is to build collaboration within the hardware engineering group and some key cross-functional stakeholders to work within supportive intervention processes to build the desired outcome of identifying a product quality metric.   Technology for the project can be any tool employed to execute the intervention and build the target solution.

The goal of finding a balance between intervention effectiveness and the right technical outcome is important as stated by Charles Pellerin (2009) in How NASA Builds Teams.  He cites numerous examples of failures and successes at NASA where the social context (the interactions between people) drove behavior and perceptions on the team (Pellerin, 2009).  Many examples of flawed social contexts that cause space disasters, airplanes to crash and dysfunctional families are shared.  Getting the right interventions for the right social context is important with the hardware engineering group.

The current organization challenges include low collaboration and communication with several organization layoffs and relocations in the past five years.  Low visibility of reporting and a very silo oriented approach to business with many groups geographically dispersed. 

The intervention chosen must address the low collaboration and low communication.  It must also provide support to the project in an environment where there is an expectation that everything will change again within the year.  This can result in low participation because if one waits long enough a new initiative will come alone and the current one will fade away.  There is also a view that any metric built will be used to set high standards which will become a risk for punishment.   Overall there is a general skeptical passive aggression resisting change.  The engineering community is information and data oriented and not receptive to activities they may consider “soft” and not action or results oriented.  Research has shown that change initiatives in organization’s new product development process are not easily achieved (Dooley & Johnson, 2001).  A large part of new product development is knowledge work where the professionals in the new product development environment have a strong loyalty to their discipline or profession.  This adherence to one’s technical or discipline’s training hinders the progress of continual change.  It is not uncommon for engineers to create barriers surrounding their environment and resisting change (Dooley & Johnson, 2001).

Considering these situational and environmental factors a combination of supporting intervention methods can address each of the project environmental factors.  In general, it would be good if the intervention were structured, data rich, action oriented and built positively on the knowledge and experience of the engineering community.   Surveying the interventions possible to meet these criteria a combination of using a Six Sigma methodology with appreciative interviews, cross-function workouts and process mapping would be action oriented to inject activities to build a solution while providing an open environment for the capturing of multiple viewpoints as the solution is identified.   The application of Six Sigma methods with the engineering community provides a technically oriented framework that is complimentary to the Action Research methods.    An evaluation at Lubrizol Corporation found that using the Six Sigma methodology in an R&D environment was very useful as an intervention for R&D improvement (Swisher, 2003).  Early work at Nalco Corporation using the foundational systems for Six Sigma, including Deming measurement systems and Juran problem-solving methods, revitalized the Quality Process for R&D (Keiser, 1996).

The Six Sigma methodology is focused on measuring process capability and eliminating defects.  It provides a mindset for taking a measureable, goal-oriented context for working on quality improvement in R&D (Johnson & Swisher, 2003).  While the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve & Control) methodology is widely used there is also a Six Sigma approach called DMADV (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design and Verify) which is oriented toward the development of new products and processes (Holman, Devane & Cady, 2007, p469).  For the engineering environment and the fact that the project will be developing a new product quality metric for new product development the DMADV approach will be used.

The integration of Organization Development and Six Sigma where Action Research is supplemented with the powerful tools for analysis and improvement of operating systems can improve the intervention effectiveness (Jeffery, 2005).   If Six Sigma is used to support action research it can provide several analytical dimensions that can serve to strengthen the traditional action research model (Jeffery, 2005).  Organization Development and action research embraces the goal of transferring knowledge and skill which enables evolutionary improvement and change (Jeffery, 2005).  Providing the framework for project delivery and process improvement tools within the framework of action research provides an expanded performance model for OD project teams (Jeffery, 2005).

The global distribution of the hardware engineering community will require that participation is drawn from as many locations as possible, especially the two major development centers which represent over 70% of  the development engineers.  With the evolution of supporting technologies there has been increasing use of teamwork in the introduction and design of products.  This teamwork approach enables the continuous and complete exchange of information which improves the effectiveness of the project (Sun, Zhao & Yau, 2009).  A team based approach is also the primary means for deploying and applying Six Sigma methods (Pyzdek, 2003, p.168). 

Two tools from the Six Sigma tool box that will be applied to the intervention are a “WorkOut” and Process Mapping”.  There will also be analytical activities in evaluating metrics but the focus of the intervention is to build agreement on identifying quality metrics for the hardware engineering in new product development.   As developed at General Electric and described by Jack Welsh, the Workout is a group meeting where issues are identified by the group of people brought together and the issues are explored and detailed for understanding and resolution (Tichy & Charan, 2001).  The Workout method quickly raises the opinions, feelings, emotions, resentments and facts from the operating level of the business.  Workouts provide details that can only be understood by those doing the work and they get people communicating with each other with open candor (Tichy & Charan, 2001).  When workouts were first deployed in GE in the 1980’s it was in the aftermath of strategic shifts in the business and workforce reduction of 25% with the remaining staff carrying the same workload (Ulrich, Kerr & Ashkenas, 2002).  There is no single way to conduct a workout but it essentially means getting a group of people together, identify problems and solutions.  Present these recommendations to key leaders, get decisions and implement them.  Workout is a very simple concept that those closest to the work know it best (Ulrich, Kerr & Ashkenas, 2002).  The Workout culture is the base of the Six Sigma initiative where GE was also a pioneer.  Using the Workout team based method enables improved data and information collection and analysis with Six Sigma tools (Ulrich, Kerr & Ashkenas, 2002, p.45).

Process Mapping will provide a visual detailed flowchart representing the process steps from the perspective of those working in the process.  Capturing the workflow in a flowchart diagram with facilitated analysis and identification of the areas of opportunity allows for improved understanding of the activities and opportunities in its natural environment as it happens in real time (Akamavi, 2005).  In the new product development process many of the activities are knowledge based and in some aspects other than the output, they are invisible.  Visually constructing the process map with a team takes these invisible and unnamed activities and visually combines the activities of individuals and departments into the collective workflow.  This provides visibility and clarity of the outputs and improves the opportunity for improvement (Langdon, Whiteside & McKenna, 1999, p313).

Empirical results have shown that Action Research combined with Six Sigma methods can be an effective intervention with teams developing new knowledge and processes.  The structured and data oriented approach of Six Sigma and process mapping can guide the team through the content generation, analysis and solution creation of a project.  The team structure can bring diversity of knowledge and experience into the solution.  There remains the nature of the engineering and technical environment to support in opening to the exploration of the project topic.  With the highly independent researchers in a new product development environment care and sensitivity must be used when intervening in knowledge-based work (Spain, 1996).  Despite the efforts taken to de-personalize change by focusing on the system, scientists and engineers often perceive that they are being told that their ability to think must be examined and improved.  It is an environment of strong egos where emotions can be barriers to progress and feelings can be easily hurt (Spain, 1996).  Success in achieving improvements is dependent on buy-in from the R&D staff.  In this environment, the initiative should begin with an appreciative focus on the employee.  Given the probability of resistance to directed intervention, it is much more effective to start with an appreciative focus (Spain, 1996).   This project of working with the hardware engineering team to characterize quality in their workstreams an approach to develop, affirming, generative images, and an appreciative inquiry into something other than the team itself is often appropriate.  This positive focus beyond the team onto the positive work accomplished by the team as the basis for an appreciative inquiry change process can create a powerful “pull” strategy and create the opportunity to transform the relationship toward the project (Bushe, 1998).  The core of an appreciative inquiry is the appreciative interview (Holman, Devane & Cady, 2007,  p. 75) based on a one-on-one dialogue with the community members asking questions on high-point experiences, valuing and what gives energy and life to the group at its best.   Using the Appreciative Inquiry framework of Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny in the interview structure will capture the positive foundation of the quality work they have been doing for decades and build on this success to grow forward.  Choosing an appreciative interview approach we are focusing on what is good and discussing how to make it better.  This path is life-giving, energizing and valuable to the team and the project.  The purpose of the appreciative interview is to bring the positive aspects of employee experiences into focus and discover what processes work well in the organization.  This provides the opportunity to incorporate a win-win approach that focuses on maintaining employee-organization alignment and demonstrates a commitment to active listening to the process (Kluger & Nir, 2010).  Appreciative interviews will focus on growth while affirming the successful past which has enabled the organization to be where it is today.  This positive approach uses the power of inquiry to engage imaginations and influence actions toward the positive potential.  This path enables the whole system in co-construction and co-innovation based on the findings of the inquiry (Martinetz, 2002). This positive co-creating will assist with the groups natural resistance and skepticism.

A review of the current research literature shows that there is no one common definition for quality in R&D (Kumar & Boyle, 2001).  The findings state that quality in R&D involves doing it the “right way” the first time, learning from and improving it each time and getting results the organization needs.  Acknowledging this flexibility in the definition of quality in and R&D and engineering environment can provide an openness of dialogue to accept all input and build a unique definition for the project and the client organization’s requirements.

Intervention Method and Design:

The situation assessment of the globally distributed hardware engineering group with their long history of success and the recent impact of restructuring and layoffs creates an opportunity to combine intervention methods to build engagement and trust with the team.  This intervention is the first step in a larger process of introducing engineering improvement methods within the engineering community which will be an ongoing activity for the next few years.  The element of characterizing quality is an important first step in establishing a baseline for quality performance and a metric for measuring improvement.  Initially the Head of Hardware Engineering will be engaged to build agreement on the scope of the project and to receive his support to have his organization work to identify the quality metric.  As a starting point a small group of the Engineering leadership team will work together to define an initial quality metric as a first phase to provide a focus for the team.  This first quality metric will be at the end of the engineering process and represent the handover quality once the engineering work goes to the manufacturing group.  It is from this point that the intermediate quality metrics will be linked.  The final quality metric will be collected from the manufacturing group as a feedback of the quality they are receiving from the engineering group.  This feedback from the internal customer will provide a reference to which the “internal” engineering quality metrics can be identified and linked to.

The project scope will combine the Action Research and Six Sigma methods by identifying the starting place, defining the goal of the project and include a plan for completing the project.  The project scope will be built with the collaboration of the Hardware Engineering Leadership team and be approved by senior management.

To complete the project three main interventions will be used.  These include:

  • Appreciative Interviews held individually with the Hardware Engineering leadership to explore their experience and ideas toward predictive quality indicators and how to achieve the desired change.
  • Workout sessions with cross-functional groups to quickly characterize the current situation and options available.  The “workouts” would be combined with a Six Sigma Approach including process mapping to collect data, conduct analysis and generate alternatives to generate a solution.
  • Data collected would identify areas of opportunity to provide predictive product quality indicators.  Again using the “workout” participants the options would be evaluated and a critical few would be selected for implementation.  Included in solution selection the “workout” groups would provide input on reporting and controlling methods to sustain the solution.

The Appreciative interviews would be conducted with the Hardware engineering Leadership team which is comprised of approximately eight people.   The appreciative interviews will build on the positive history of our product development and the commercial success of the many new products launch in the past decades.  The orientation will be an analysis of the positive core with an emphasis on the root cause of success.  From these interviews positive themes and events will be compiled building on the success that has gone before.   From this foundation the interview will explore where these successes can be extended to envision what might be and then dialogue around the possibilities for the next level of quality in their teams.  Each interview will be targeted for 30 minutes.  The responses will be collected and compiled from the whole leadership team to look for priority areas of opportunity as well as areas of agreement.  Beginning with an appreciative interview provides the opportunity to construct the project exercise in a positive frame and acknowledge the positive contribution made from the Hardware Engineering Group to the organization’s success and current quality products.   Beginning with a positive reflection of achievements and building to a positive future will help reduce potential resistance and defensiveness within the engineering community.

The workout sessions will bring together cross functional groups from different departments that are involved in the New Product Development process including Hardware Engineering and Product Management, Manufacturing, Procurement, Marketing and Quality to get the full voice of all participants in the product development process.  The workouts will use Six Sigma process mapping as a primary tool to visually capture all the major steps in the New Product Development process.  From the process map the workout team can identify any gaps in process activities that create project and product quality problems.  The team can also prioritize the activities that have the greatest impact on quality and the operation of the New Product Development Process.   Within the client organization there are also several product lines that use the same Hardware Engineering group and New Product Development process.  The process mapping exercise will also provide the opportunity to align the activities across the product lines, especially in areas where the difference impact the quality of the products being developed.

Depending on the breadth of participation from the geographical areas and the departments involved there may be from one to three workout sessions held.  What is important is that all locations and all departments are represented in the workouts and process mapping sessions.

The outcome from these process maps will be a visual representation of the current process,  any gaps in process activities between locations or product lines and potential areas of improvement to measure or improve quality.  A possible future state process map may be possible which can identify improvements to the New Product Development Process to improve consistency and product quality.  The primary output from the process mapping and process analysis from the workouts will be a prioritized list of quality metrics that can be collected across the Hardware Engineering activities to provide improved visibility of product quality through the new product development process.

The Results will be presented as a summary of the appreciative interviews with major themes identified, examples of significant successes highlighted and any ideas for future grow documented as potential input to the workout and process mapping sessions.  A New Product Development Process Map will be drawn capturing the opportunities for improvement and identifying areas for capturing hardware engineering quality metrics.

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