The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Monday, August 6, 2012

Quality Sells

A couple of posts ago I shared with you a story of customer service and disservice, and the difference that made in a product purchase. And I received some nice feedback both on the blog comments and in personal emails that great customer service will, in fact, produce results.

There's a broader lesson to be learned from that story. Great customer service is just one component of a satisfying purchase, as is the high quality of a product. A satisfying purchase is one in which you acquire the product you need, perhaps in a nicer quality than you expected, at a better price than you expected, delivered in a timely manner, and resulting in a relationship with the supplier that you can trust to be reliable for another purchase in the future.

Each of these components reflects a different aspect of the quality, or value, of the purchase. And each of them has consistency as its foundation. A company that delivers the product with the expected (satisfying) results, time after time, will be one that generates return customers and a dynamic business model.
"Let me explain with a mind picture.  I always think of a McDonald’s hamburger when I want to use an example of quality.  OK, I know they’re not the best hamburgers you can buy.  But admit it…you can stop at a McDonald’s anywhere in the country, order a Quarter Pounder with cheese, and it will taste exactly like the last Quarter Pounder you ate, even if it was 600 miles away thirteen years ago.  That’s quality.

OK, so what?  My point is simply is that lumber and pallet customers want exactly the same thing, every time they order it.  They know there are different grades, with different performance standards…but they purchase what they need for their application, according to a description or specification of what we offer them, and having first experienced that product, they expect it to be exactly the same every time they order it in the future.

The point extends to service.  Not only do they want exactly the same product, they want it on exactly the same lead time, packaged the same way, with exactly the same marking and paperwork they got it the last time.  Any deviation from what they were happy with on their last order will be seen as a lower-quality alternative to what they wanted.  Even if it’s not.

Let’s go back to burgers.  I generally like Burger King burgers better than Mickey D’s, but there’s a problem…sometimes they get the ingredients wrong, or the bun is too dry, or it just doesn’t taste as good as the last one, for some reason.  So in any town I happen to be passing through, I have to make the decision…stop at McDonald’s and get the Quarter Pounder I can taste in my dreams, or stop at The King and hope their staff is having a good day."
That text is from a two-part article published last year in the fine industry magazine Pallet Enterprise. In the article, I discuss how companies should take an holistic approach to improving the quality of their products through focusing their quality improvement efforts on striving for consistency in every phase of their business process. Sometimes, that means leadership the employees can count on, instead of "management by crisis". Sometimes, it might mean technical statistical tools to control and monitor processes. Other times, it can be as simple as providing visual cues to employees to remind them of the standard being sought.

Daily communication of that day's order file, and open discussion of any issues that present themselves, is well worth the time it takes. Employees appreciate knowing how to handle the day, without having to guess how the boss wants each situation handled. Twenty minutes invested will return thousands in savings of rework and/or rejected shipments.

Visual grading and sizing cues are always helpful, even with the most experienced of employees.  Here, board sizes are labeled and displayed on board carts; as the carts are filled, the samples are transferred to the next cart.  Simple, but effective.
As owner or manager of a wood products operation, I suggest that you think of your mission as a eight-part "Circle of Quality".... which you begin your product concept by...

  1. understanding the obligation to the customer, 
  2. specifying the precise product or service to meet that obligation, 
  3. consistently and specifically communicating those requirements to your employees, 
  4. observing the process set in place to ensure it is delivering what you intended, 
  5. collecting information in the form of employee feedback and process data, 
  6. measuring and understanding the variability in the process and working to reduce that variation to a level where the customer sees consistency in your output, 
  7. documenting the critical elements of the finely-tuned process to ensure future employees continue the same actions, 
  8. and then repeating this series of management steps for each new product or service that your company develops as it adapts to changing customer requirements.

You and your customers know a quality product or service when you see it. Even easier to see is poor quality and service. Your company will thrive if you produce the first, and fail if you provide the latter long enough.

For more on implementation of the Circle of Quality, see these articles...

If you're going to Go Wood, do it right, and do it consistently!

You and your customer know quality when you see it. These pallets are obviously the products of a well-designed, consistent process.

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