Many of our users highlight customer quality documentation and traceability requirements as one of their biggest pains. In fact, I once saw a heavy industry CEO almost cry (literally) because the constant stream of paperwork was so frustrating to deal with.
To make matters worse, our users say customer documentation requirements keep increasing.
Similarly, customers expect to receive documentation sooner. Previously, the as-built documentation was delivered with the physical goods, or soon thereafter. However, more and more customers expect to review quality documentation upfront. Some customers even want to review documentation between key process steps. It is difficult (and costly) for suppliers to comply with this requirement.
Finally, each customer has his own documentation requirements. Varying documentation formats means that suppliers are stuck with a ton of non-standardized spreadsheets, pdfs, and emails.
Manual quality documentation is inefficient.
When visiting suppliers I almost always see the same quality documentation process. It looks something like this:
- Inspectors print or grab a paper form in the office
- They then fill the form on the shop floor
- Once completed they pass the form on to back-office
- Back-office types up the paper form on a PC and saves it as a pdf.
- They then proceed to send the pdf to the customer by email
- The customer reviews and approves documentation
- Finally, the customer archives the email or pdf on a hard drive or server
I understand why this process is both painful and time-consuming.
It is horribly inefficient.
First, the approach will not scale. All of the above-mentioned activities have to be driven by people. Increased volume just leads to increased paperwork. As a result, it is difficult to exploit economies of scale as the volume grows.
Difficult to manage
Secondly, the process itself is difficult to manage. Especially when the number of people involved increases. It requires an overview to orchestrate this data collection process by hand. Similarly, it requires strict collective data discipline to provide an acceptable level of data quality.
Too many errors
Thirdly, the process is error-prone. It’s just a fact that people are sloppy and make mistakes. Maybe an inspector fills invalid data or forgets to fill a data field entirely. Or perhaps back-office makes a typo when manually typing up a serial number. Whenever I review manual documentation I find it littered with errors.
Finally, and maybe worst of all, the output is not very useful. Because data is stored inside dispersed emails or pdf files the data is essentially dead data. Using the data for anything else than “having it, just in case” is almost impossible.
Dead data is data stored in formats that prevent smart management and large-scale analysis. Typical examples are physical paper, pdf, word documents, spreadsheets, emails, etc.
Even simple traceability queries would a nightmare. Similarly, analyzing the data at scale will require people to manually consolidate and prepare the data first. And in my experience, nobody has time to do this, so it will most likely never happen.
Why digital quality documentation is the solution
In my opinion, the best way to overcome the documentation challenge is to make it digital. Digitalizing the process will of course not relieve the pain entirely, customers will still require documentation. However, I believe that suppliers can significantly reduce the efforts and costs required to fulfill customer expectations.
Advances in cloud solutions and smartphone accessibility gives the supply chain the opportunities to make digital quality documentation workflows that are much more efficient than the manual alternative.
Improving the quality documentation workflows should be a multi-pronged approach that looks into; 1) how documentation is structured and designed, 2) how data is actually collected, and finally 3) how the data is post-processed and used as a competitive advantage.
Improving quality documentation design
Improving structure and design falls on the quality and R&D engineers who craft the documentation templates that suppliers struggle to fill out.
Often, I get the sense that the quality engineers pay little (or no) attention to the people who actually collect the data. Filling the quality documentation takes time and costs money. Quality engineers should think twice before including new additional documentation. Similarly, they should make the occasional spring cleaning to get rid of data that is no longer necessary.
Improving documentation structure and design is really about exploiting the benefits of digital technology to make life easier for people on the production floor or in the field
This includes aligning the documentation structure to fit the actual data collection process. Perhaps the optimal data structure is chronologic. Alternatively, the key processes may determine how data is best organized. The best approach will depend on the context.
Nevermind that the end result will display data in a completely different structure. Separating data capture and presentation formats is a key strength of digital data.
Similarly, digital data is reusable. Key data such as serial numbers and master data (e.g. item numbers) should only be typed once. When presenting data to the customer, you can reuse the data in the header of each page if you need to.
There are plenty more ways for quality engineers to improve documentation design. Take a look at this blog post to learn more about improving quality documentation structure and design.
Improving quality data capture
Like with documentation design, the digital approach can also make data collection easy and painless. Swapping pen and paper with mobile apps is a gamechanger for quality data capture.
One of the problems with paper documentation workflows is that the data collection process itself is hard to manage. Similarly, it is difficult for multiple inspectors to work on the same documentation in parallel because it requires extensive coordination and data discipline.
Oppositely, digital data collection workflows are easier to manage. All inspectors have access to the documentation and can easily see which data is missing. As a result, inspectors are able to collaborate efficiently.
To better serve impatient customers, it would also be technically possible for customers to monitor quality data capture in real-time.
Digital solutions also have the potential to offer improved support to inspectors. For example, detailed instructions or perhaps even video tutorials. More importantly, interactive tools provide instant input validation and immediate feedback to ensure that inspectors make fewer mistakes.
See this blog post to learn more about how digital documentation can radically improve quality data capture.
Turning quality documentation into an asset
More often than not, both suppliers and customers simply store the quality documentation as dead data “just in case”. This is really a shame because the data could become a valuable asset.
Consider manually going through the paperwork for thousands of components to identify the ones with item number X from manufacturer Y with sub-component Z installed. Such queries could take days or weeks if employees had to sift through documents manually. And they would probably still overlook something.
Having the data available as bits and bytes in a database is much more powerful. Once written, a database query will return a high confidence response in less than a second. This drives accountability, traceability and enables instant answers to complex queries.
In addition to improved traceability, it can be incredibly valuable to combine quality data with operational business data. Performing large scale analysis on this dataset can provide significant insights, not only for the quality department but also for operations, sourcing, R&D, etc.
Take a look at this blog post to learn more about the value of digital quality data and how you can turn it into a competitive advantage.
How come so few use digital quality documentation?
While the benefits of going paperless seem evident, it is surprising how few supply chains actually move all-in on digital quality documentation. Within the wind- and heavy industry, I have almost never seen fully digital documentation systems. Why is this?
Firstly, I think it is because most business cases only build on a few of the benefits of going digital. Failing to quantify the business case through a holistic prism leads businesses to reach the wrong conclusion in favor of the status quo.
Secondly, many of the established quality software systems take an internal company focus. System design simply does not allow for flexible collaboration with the extended supply chain. As a result, suppliers lack system support and rely on manual tools to capture and submit quality data.
Finally, supply chain volatility may undermine the business case entirely. Slow software purchase and implementation lead-times have traditionally not been able to provide the required speed and flexibility. Because collaboration is temporary it is simply not worth the risk and effort to establish digital quality documentation workflows.
Quality documentation is an unavoidable pain for suppliers if they want to do business. And the pain seems to be increasing because customers require more documentation and expect to receive it faster.
However, switching to digital documentation not only enables suppliers to improve quality documentation. It also enables customers to use quality data as a valuable asset for a multitude of purposes.
Especially suppliers could benefit significantly from going paperless. Affordable access to smartphones/tablets and software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions significantly reduce lead-time and risk for SMEs. If companies quantify the value of all the benefits of going digital, it should be easy to justify the investment.
At some point, customers (or authorities) will require digital documentation. Why not start the transitioning process now? If you do decide to go digital, here are a few pieces of advice that many software vendors will probably disagree with:
Go for Flexibility
Find a solution that is open, flexible and easy to adapt along the way. As you learn you become wiser. Your requirements change as very few companies stay the same forever (at least not successful ones).
Start Sooner Rather Than Later
Start as soon as possible with limited scope and functionality. Don’t spend years designing and developing the perfect can-do-everything solution. It does not exist. And if you finally manage to build it, the odds are that it will not work the way you thought it would.
Make or Buy?
Carefully consider the long-term impact of building a solution yourself. Development takes more time/money than you expect. There will be recurring maintenance costs. The only one to improve the solution is you.
Those were my two cents.
Thanks for sticking with me to the end. I hope you found the post useful. Perhaps the post inspired you to ditch the paperwork and go digital.