In Lean environments, performance improvement focusses on error-prevention and designing good quality in to processes and products. Quality Assurance (QA), in contrast, traditionally relied on resource-intensive regimes to produce reasonable quality, and a margin of error was the norm. So, can the two work together to deliver virtually perfect (six-sigma quality)? Can Assurance programmes help deliver Lean?  

Early experiences of Assurance

blop picStarting my career as a new Quality Manager in the Drinks Industry, I was aghast at the number of critical faults or ‘birdswings’, (glass threads running across the inside of the bottles). In line with current thinking of that era, shop-floor supervisors wanted to double inspection levels. My instincts persuaded me otherwise.

I negotiated to introduce stringent AQLs (acceptable quality levels) with glass suppliers. I inspected around 10%, rejecting the entire consignment if ANY critical faults were found. This shifted the inconvenience and the cost of failure from my bottling plant to the glassware supplier. Glass quality quickly and dramatically improved. This was an early lesson in how to reduce the risk of error and tailor assurance accordingly.  

Assurance and Lean

Fast forward to Nottingham 2015, where I was assigned to a significant programme of assurance in a large Government administration. Objectives were to assess progress of business areas towards Operational Excellence, a reasonably mature stage on the Lean journey. With some trepidation about this approach, I launched myself into it.  

I was reminded of some ‘Costs of Quality’ training. It explained that quality costs include not just failure and process waste, but also those incurred through assurance and prevention activity. In traditional Quality Assurance, inspection costs were kept manageably low, and so was quality. It was acknowledged that 100% inspection was not possible, so neither was 100% quality.    

In a Lean environment, based on error-prevention, I reasoned that assurance efforts should be reduced. During my light-touch assurance programmes, I simply reminded leaders and managers of the error-prevention and improvement approaches they already had in place. To:

  • regularly measure performance against goals
  • trust and empower teams to own their improvements
  • use visual mapping and problem solving to close the gaps
  • document improved processes in a standard way
  • communicate improvements and change in a structured way

This approach also got teams to a better level of understanding about the benefits of a Lean approach.

Good practice Assurance for Lean organisations

What I took from this is to carefully plan the Assurance programme in the light of what the organisation already has in place to reduce error and to improve. Two different ‘generations’ of the Quality family need to be brought together to get the best out of both. This is the challenge.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and exchange experiences, if you’ve identified with any of this.  

How we can help

If you want to know more about light touch assurance programmes, then please contact us here, phone us on 07824 660120, or email us at Alternatively you can ask questions or leave comments at the end of this article.


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