Quality Assurance and Continuous Improvement, Separate but Equal

Large organizations, especially publicly traded companies, are laser-focused on cutting costs and improving profits. They achieve this goal with the help of two different department, Quality Assurance (QA) and Continuous Improvement (CI), often referred to as Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI).

Most organizations take a customer-first approach, meaning they utilize metrics like Voice of the Customer to determine the minimum acceptable level of quality for their products. This is where the Quality Assurance department focuses its efforts.

The Continuous Quality Improvement department has a different mission, to ensure product quality remains high while continually improving the manufacturing process without sacrificing quality. Cost reduction also falls under CQI for many organizations.

Initially, it may seem that these two departments would be at odds. QA focuses strictly on quality, regardless of cost. CQI looks at both quality and cost, while being tasks with improving profitability. The truth is that these departments must work in unison if they which to achieve their goals.

Quality Assurance (QA)

The QA department will oversee, plan, direct, and coordinate quality assurance. They maintain a stable, organized, and effective quality program. They are responsible for all aspects of quality activities for an organization and focus on customer satisfaction.

For example, the QA department for a manufacturer will conduct standardized qualitative and quantitative testing to ensure products meet specifications. They perform testing for any type of product contamination and follow protocols for documenting testing results. They also recognize deficiencies and initiate proper follow-up while identifying and isolating product that does not meet standards.

These tasks revolve strictly around the product, as the customer expects to receive it. The QA department does not focus on cost, they are simply there to ensure the product meets the manufacturer’s specification with as little variation as possible. To accomplish this, the QA department may utilize quality analysis to determine the manufacturing tolerance and variation from the mean average of a manufactured product.

Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI)

CQI is often more complex that QA since it balances several factors that often conflict. Continuous Quality Improvement seeks to improve the quality of a product, improve the manufacturing process, and reduce costs simultaneously. This can be a monumental task, especially considering the complexities of today’s supply chain issues.

Using the same manufacturing example, CQI would utilize Critical to Quality (CTQ) measures to determine if the manufacturing process was as lean as possible. Oftentimes, manufacturing processes have waste and inefficiencies that can be eliminated using process improvement methods like Six Sigma and Total Quality Management.

Six Sigma Black Belt’s or Quality Managers with in-depth knowledge of Measurement Systems Analysis often oversee these departments.

Quality Assurance and Continuous Quality Improvement Working Together

Despite their different missions, QA and CQI departments must work together for the good of their organization. This is typically accomplished in three ways: training, statistical analysis, and lean management.

Quality Training

QA and CQI employees will often go through the same training within an organization.  Trainers start with a general approach to quality before employees branch off to focus on their specific roles.  This type of group training ensures that all employees understand quality as defined by the organization.  Companies can instill the need for cost controls and process analysis early in the employee’s career.  Employees will often be given training on Six Sigma, like the Six Sigma Green Belt, so they understand how process improvement works and the goal of these improvement processes.

Statistical Analysis

Using gut instinct may work fine for a small company, but large organizations don’t leave quality to chance.  Every piece of the manufacturing process is analyzed using statistical analysis to ensure the highest levels of quality are reached in the most cost-effective way.

Lean Management

When a company focuses on eliminating excess processes and maintaining strict controls on costs, they are called Lean.  Lean is a waste reduction process, but it is also a way of thinking.  Company culture comes from management, and Lean Management is often the most effective way to meet stakeholder demands.  Essentially, management empowers all employees to be lean agents and to look for ways to improve processes at all levels of the organization.