Lean is about simultaneously improving all dimensions of performance, including quality

This is in response to Mike Micklewright‘s question on Why Is Quality So Rarely Central In Lean?:

“I see so many internal Lean “experts” using “Lean” as a means to increase efficiencies and productivity, and therefore, reduce costs.  They still do not see the connection to quality.  They see quality and the reduction of variation in significant product characteristics as something that is outside of the Lean scope and something that should be handled by the quality folks independently of the lean effort.  What a shame!  If you agree with this observation, why does this exist and what can we do to change this perception?”

Following is my response:

Quality not central to Lean? Says who? Lean is about simultaneously improving all dimensions of performance, including quality. Quality professionals frequently miss this, because what they learned primarily addresses process capability issues that are central only in high technology, where, if your process is mature, your product is obsolete. This is the context where statistical approaches like Six Sigma make a difference.

Modern machine tools, on the other hand, can easily hold required tolerances, and most quality problems are not due to lack of process capability. They are instead due to discrete failure of the equipment or human error. The main issue with discrete equipment failures is to detect them quickly so that they affect few parts and can be diagnosed before their trail is cold. With one-piece flow, defects are detected immediately instead of being buried in WIP, and this is why conversion from batch production to one-piece flow typically yields large improvements in quality.

The next step, which Dennis alluded to, is having machines stop as soon as they start producing defectives, but this still leaves human error, and that is addressed by mistake-proofing. Beyond these approaches, there is also management to prevent the deterioration over time, and plan responses to potential new problems.

This is a hierarchy of approaches. Actual numbers vary, but, in orders of magnitude, statistical tools will get you from 30% defectives to 3%, one-piece flow to 0.3%, mistake-proofing to 15ppm, and I know of one case of a Toyota supplier achieving <1ppm on some parts.