When visiting users onsite, I often see employees doing manual quality data collection. This is both suppliers who manually collect the quality data using paper forms and customers who manually review and organize the paper forms for traceability purposes.
In a previous blog post, I described why this manual process is incredibly frustrating and how it kills productivity. On request, I did a follow-up post that looked into how quality engineers can improve quality documentation design to make life less painful for inspectors.
This blog post will zoom in on the quality data collection process itself. Particularly, it will focus on the benefits of digitalizing quality data collection as opposed to using manual paper forms.
So… let’s cut to the chase. Here are 10 reasons why you should digitalize quality data collection:
1. Easy version control
When updating to paper forms version control can be a nightmare. One thing is to inform stakeholders globally that a new version is available. I know from my own experience that making sure everyone switches to the new version is an entirely different matter.
With digital solutions, this becomes a lot easier. In Prescience, the new version is applied automatically once changes have been published. The old version will no longer be available to inspectors going forward. As a result, version control is much simpler. Both for quality engineers who implement changes and for inspectors who use the quality forms on a daily basis.
2. Automatic quality form generation
As opposed to the analog paper method, IT systems can automatically initialize the quality forms required for inspectors. Inspectors won’t have to swing by the office or scramble for a photocopier to get a new paper form.
In Prescience, for example, manufacturing milestones can trigger data form creation. As a result, the system automatically creates the required data forms as they needed by inspectors (in the correct version). Similarly, the digital system can randomly apply predefined inspection ratios.
This really takes the complexity out of the equation for inspectors. This means inspectors can focus on the work at hand, without having to worry about the paperwork
3. Inspector mobility
In the pre-smartphone era, the actual inspection and inspection paperwork were often separate activities. The rapid adoption and affordable prices of smartphones and tablets means that inspectors have greater mobility and are capable of registering data in the field.
This allows the actual quality data collection to move closer to the physical product in space and time. This improves overall data quality and reduces data management. As a result, less data is lost in translation.
4. Improved inspector collaboration
Another clear advantage of digital workflows is that inspectors can efficiently collaborate. This is difficult (if not impossible) with traditional paper forms. As a minimum, it requires coordination and clear agreements.
When inspectors fill data digitally, they are able to continuously provide smaller pieces of the puzzle. Similarly, they can see each other’s progress in real-time. This potentially eliminates a lot of confusion and double work.
5. Leaner quality data collection
It is a clear trend that customers require documentation sooner. As a result, it’s no longer sufficient to receive the complete quality documentation package upon project completion. Instead, customers want to review documentation in parallel with the value creation process. Suppliers are challenged to provide this level of service when the documentation process is driven with paper forms, spreadsheets, and emails.
In a previous blog post, I discussed the benefit of designing quality forms to follow the physical flow chronologically. This allows suppliers to break data collection into smaller batches, as opposed to one big documentation delivery at the end.
This, combined with effortless data consolidation, allows customers to review and approve documentation upfront, literally as it is being created. Breaking the documentation into smaller sequential batches provides the service that customers want and makes the process easier to manage for suppliers.
6. Interactive user support
Paper forms often provide sparse instructions to inspectors. Paper format limitations simply don’t allow for detailed instructions and descriptions to help inspectors. Instead, inspectors must acquire this knowledge through training or separate manuals, which is fine of course.
However, digital media provides new opportunities. For example, it’s possible to include detailed instructions about; methods, tools, tolerances and specification criteria. This could be in the format of explanatory text, excerpts from the technical specification or perhaps even a link to an instruction video.
7. Strong input validation
Input validation is probably my favorite reason to go digital. Maybe that’s partly due to my OCD when it comes to working with data 🙂
Poor input validation is a clear disadvantage of paper forms, text documents, and spreadsheets. Basically, inspectors can write whatever they want. This is a major problem for several reasons. First, it’s impossible to measure if data has been filled. Secondly, it’s easy for inspectors to make mistakes. Finally, the data requires additional cleansing and postprocessing before it can be used.
Strong input validation is a MUST when working with data. Digital forms are able to measure that inspectors have provided input. Similarly, digital input controls can enforce that input adheres to predefined formats (e.g. text, numbers, dates, etc.). Also, converting text input to dropdowns allow inspectors to select answers from a list of valid answers.
Strong input validation dramatically reduces errors and corrupt data. As a result, new data needs much less preparation. This is important! In fact, it is essential that new data requires no user-driven preparation if the data forms part of automatic reporting or performance measurement,
8. Direct response evaluation
Digital forms allow us to take input validation a step further. What if the input control knows about specific evaluation criteria?
It means that the system can immediately “test” the input and provide feedback to the inspector. This would enable inspectors to detect typos upfront and allow inspectors to easily correct the data. More importantly, it would help inspectors identify components that require scrap or rework if the component fails the evaluation criteria.
Another powerful use-case is to specify pass/fail criteria on top of e.g. numerical data points. For example, to measure the rate at which a process produces an acceptable output that does not necessarily require rework/scrap (First-Pass-Yield).
9. Make quality data collection easier to manage
Quality inspectors often tell me they are overwhelmed by the extent of documentation. Documentation packages of tens or even hundreds of pages require significant overhead to manage. Similarly, customers have a hard time checking that all documentation is correct, let alone complete.
Analog formats provide little help to manage and measure the documentation process itself. Often the only way to check documentation completeness is to flip through each page and double-check each data point manually.
The digital approach makes it trivial to quantify documentation progress. In Prescience, for example, we track which data points have input. This allows users to see the completion percentage for each data form. On top of this, parent components have an aggregate percentage to summarize all its child data forms. This makes it easy for inspectors, quality managers, and customers to measure completion.
To make the process even easier to manage, inspectors can momentarily hide already completed data points. As a result, inspectors only see pending work and are able to focus on missing data points. This means inspectors use significantly less mental capacity figuring out what to do next.
10. Consolidating quality data
Consolidation is about moving the data to a central location, where it can be stored and (hopefully) accessed with relative ease. More the rule than the exception, I see suppliers emailing documents to customers. Subsequently, customers spend time archiving documents in a hard drive or a server. This is, of course, better than sending the physical documents by postal service, but I still cringe every time I see it.
The solution to this problem is a database. Again, I regress to use Prescience as a good example of how consolidation should work. Prescience stores the data to a cloud database as soon as the inspector hits save. The data is immediately visible to colleagues, managers, and customers. Sometimes our database is the central location for long term storage. Sometimes customers want to fetch the data from Prescience to store it on-premise.
The proposition here is that inspectors touch the data only once. Fire and forget. Inspectors don’t waste time preparing files and sending emails. Similarly, customers don’t waste time opening emails, archiving files or extracting data from files.
Digital quality data collection has many advantages over manual paper forms. Most notably is how the data collection process itself is improved for inspectors:
- Inspectors always have access to the newest form versions
- Forms can be systematically generated or randomly sampled for inspectors
- The digital form removes clutter and makes the collection process leaner
- Inspectors are able to effortlessly collaborate with each other in real-time
- Interactive support, definitions, and specifications can help inspectors on the spot
- Input validation and evaluation helps inspectors make fewer mistakes
- The collection process becomes quantifiable, measurable and easier to manage
- Zero effort is required by inspectors to consolidate results at a global scale
I would argue that the reasons above are difficult to achieve when inspectors use paper forms to capture data and subsequently pdf, email, and spreadsheet to transmit and store the information.
With the continuous adoption of smart devices and SaaS solutions that are both fast and easy to deploy, I would expect more businesses to start digitalizing their entire quality documentation footprint. In some cases, evolution may be supplier driven to address efficiency issues and reduce costs. In other cases, I would expect it to be customer-driven because customers realize the value of owning the data digitally, which they currently do not! Either way, moving into digital data collection seems like a no-brainer for me.
What about you? Are you collecting quality data digitally or are you still relying on the old paper and pencil method?
As always, please leave your feedback in the comments. Until next time, take care 😉