Every organization wants error to be kept at a minimum. The dedication to fulfilling this desire, however, often varies according to the severity of consequences that are likely to result. Manufacturers miss delivery dates or ship faulty product; service providers fail to satisfy customers or damage their property; militaries lose battles or cause civilian casualties; all increase the cost of operations.
You probably have some sensitivity to the effects errors have on your organization and its partners. This series explores strategies, tools, and related concepts to help you effectively combat error and its effects. This is your induction; welcome to The War on Error.
Errors vs. Effects
To properly guide error-reduction efforts in your organization, it is important to make a clear distinction between errors and the effects of those errors. An error is an unintended deviation from the process plan. This definition highlights another important distinction – that between errors and sabotage. Sabotage is an intentional act; it requires more than a typical error-reduction effort to effectively combat it. As such, it is beyond the scope of this series, which focuses on the fallibility of conscientious operators and naturally-occurring phenomena.
The effects of errors are known by many names; common general terms include defect, nonconformance, and noncompliance. More-descriptive terms, related to a process, specification, or regulatory requirement, are used to specify the nature of the defect (e.g. electrical short), nonconformance (e.g. orange peel), or noncompliance (e.g. acidic effluent).
The relationship between errors and their effects further clarifies the distinction. Errors provide the opportunity – and high probability – for defects (or other term) to manifest. More simply, errors cause defects.
Effective error reduction requires curing the disease (errors and their causes), rather than merely treating its symptoms (repairing defects). Removing unsatisfactory product, based on 100% inspection, for example, may reduce the number of defects perceived by customers, but it does not reduce the number of errors or the associated costs. Discovery of effective countermeasures is facilitated in Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) by explicitly separating discussion of failure modes (i.e. defects), effects of failures (i.e. symptoms, how defects are discovered), and causes of failures (errors, disease).
Types of Error
There are many types of error that can occur, negatively impacting the output of a process. Those described below are only a sample of common, generalized examples. There will be others inherent in every process and requirement encountered.
A lack of experience, training, or documented standards can cause any number of errors to occur. A common problem is the acceptance of substandard output because the standard has not been clearly communicated or is highly subjective.
Operators’ physical and cognitive performance declines with fatigue. Monotonous or uninteresting work accelerates the onset of fatigue. Accuracy or precision of motion may suffer, as well as the ability to keep pace with other process activities. This could cause required operations to be skipped or performed incompletely. It could even become hazardous, resulting in injury to workers, customers, or bystanders.
Equipment failures can also cause a variety of errors. A malfunctioning gauge, for example, may mislead an operator to believe that all process parameters are within acceptable limits. The real situation, however, could be causing defective output with no indication that adjustment is needed.
Identification errors often occur when two items or situations are difficult to distinguish. Making assumptions or quickly reaching a conclusion without careful consideration may result in selecting incorrect material, for example, or pursuing an inappropriate course of action.
There are many more potential errors; some are universal and some are unique to specific processes and circumstances. Some authors include “intentional errors” in this discussion, but this term is a contradiction. As mentioned previously, sabotage is better suited to a separate discussion.
Modes of Error Reduction
There are three modes of error reduction in which activities take place: prevention, detection, and correction.
In prevention mode, as the name implies, activities are focused on preventing errors from occurring. It is in this mode that standards and instructions are developed, training is conducted, equipment is maintained, and other efforts are made to reduce the probability of an error being made.
Successful error prevention requires system-level analysis to identify likely errors; preventive measures can then be designed and implemented. These measures are recorded in the FMEA under Current Process Controls – Prevention. Prevention is typically the most cost-effective strategy; it limits scrap and rework costs and often reduces monitoring cost.
During and following a process, detection mode activities attempt to discover any errors that occurred despite efforts to prevent them. In manufacturing processes, defective product is removed, preventing it from reaching the customer. The nature of service operations – specifically, customer involvement – may make this impossible.
Successful error detection requires objective standards, training, and reliable instruments suited to the task. The mechanisms used are recorded in the FMEA under Current Process Controls – Detection. Detection controls may reveal the effects of a failure or detect the failure mode directly.
Correction mode encompasses the worst-case scenario. Prevention efforts have failed; if a customer discovers an error, detection efforts have also failed. In service operations, the customer and provider may discover an error simultaneously; this situation provides no opportunity to correct the error before the customer is affected by it. Correction efforts, therefore, may extend beyond the actual error to repairing the customer relationship and rebuilding confidence in the provider’s abilities.
Manufacturers may recover more easily from a customer’s receipt of faulty product; the transaction is somewhat impersonal when compared to services. However, repeated transgressions will damage a company’s reputation and product replacement will no longer be sufficient to recover from errors.
If detection controls are effective, each correction required provides information that can be used to improve the upstream process by strengthening prevention measures. Capitalizing on each opportunity is imperative; scrap, rework, and warranty costs can otherwise destroy a company’s profitability.
Many people seem to think that automation is the answer to every problem. After all, once the automation is programmed, it never forgets or gets tired; it is always precise and will never destroy itself to spite the management. However, all processes are not amenable to automation. Some that can be automated do not provide a cost-effective solution. Furthermore, automation is susceptible to errors of its own if it is not fully compatible with the task. Automation cannot apply judgment or understand nuance; these are human capabilities. Any situation that has not been predicted and programmed cannot be handled properly. The variety and uniqueness of service operations further confound attempts to automate, particularly those that value compassion and empathy.
To be clear, automation certainly has a role to play and where appropriate, it will enter the discussion. It is by no means, however, the default solution; therefore, it will not be a dominant topic in this series.
Future volumes of “The War on Error” will explore tools and techniques that can be used to solve problems and reduce errors. The series can be taken a la carte; readers are encouraged to “mix and match,” customizing a tool set that best fits the needs and capabilities of each individual and organization.
Readers are also encouraged to submit questions or topic suggestions in the comments section below. If more personalized guidance is required, please use the Contact page to provide background information. JayWink can also provide materials, conduct training, lead or supplement your organization’s error-reduction efforts; schedule a consultation for details. We look forward to assisting you and your organization.
[Link] “Quality and Productivity Improvement: A Study of Variation and Defects in Manufacturing.” Edgardo J. Escalante; Quality Engineering, March 1999.
[Link] The New Lean pocket Guide XL. Don Tapping; MCS Media, Inc., 2006.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
Directory of “The War on Error” entries on “The Third Degree.”
Vol. I: Welcome to the Army (1Jul2020)
Vol. II: Poka Yoke (What Is and Is Not) (15Jul2020)
Vol. III: A Tale of Two Journeys (29Jul2020)
Vol. IV: Get Some R&R - Variables (12Aug2020)
Vol. V: Get Some R&R - Attributes (26Aug2020)
Vol. VI: Six Sigma (9Sep2020)
Vol. VII: The Shainin System (23Sep2020)
Vol. VIII: Precontrol (7Oct2020)
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