In June 2017, I bought a new axe. I bought an axe made by a local tool manufacturer, even though I could probably save a few Rand by buying a Chinese look-a-like. I reasoned that if something went wrong, I was more likely to get a positive response than from a company in China (I must be psychic).

We used the axe once on green wood from pruning fruit trees and then left it in the garage for three months.

I used it to cut up a pine log and the head loosened. I cut up a second log and the hard plastic (Bakelite, I think) sealing the top of the handle popped out.

I phoned the company’s head office, the internet is wonderful for finding contact details, and asked for the Quality Manager. “O, yes,” he tells me, “We occasionally get this complaint. Give me your address and I will supply a replacement.”

He drove out from Germiston to Boksburg a couple of days later, and brought me a new axe. He said, “Someone did not put the metal wedge, which holds the handle in the head, into the axe handle. This happens from time to time when production is rushed.”

There are quality lessons in this story. The price of non-conformance was:

  • About two hours of his time, say two hours at R250 an hour – R500.
  • Someone at the company will take the axe apart and confirm that the wedge is missing. They will write out a customer complaint form and record the investigation, say one hour at R125 an hour
  • They lost the cost of the new axe and the axe is a write off; although they may reclaim the head, say a loss of R50.

The direct cost is therefore R675, but this pails into insignificance when you consider the indirect costs.

South Africans do not usually complain. They just don’t buy from that company anymore and, on average, tell their experience to ten of their friends. They may only get complaints about loose axe heads occasionally, but there are many more out in the field, destroying their reputation. This reputation destruction does not only affect their axes, but all their products.

Companies who go down this road are soon heard complaining that they cannot compete against the Chinese on price, but they throw away their reputation that led me to pay extra for what I considered to be quality.

How to avoid this disaster:

Do your corrective action and fix your customer’s problems you know about. They did this well and I will buy their products again.

Take action to prevent the defect happening again. To get it wrong once is unfortunate; to get it wrong twice is criminal. The system I use is to take action in one of five ways:

  • The best action to prevent the defect happening is an engineering solution. Some machine that either will drive every wedge in or will detect a missing wedge.
  • The next best action is to implement monitoring and measuring to control the failure, possibly a 100% inspection by the person putting in the black sealant. Remember to hold the inspector equally to blame if a defect is missed. The best you can expect from this process is eighty percent detection effectiveness, which means that eight defects in every ten will not get to annoy a customer. Have a way of tracing the people responsible when you find a defect. Remember to include the production manager / supervisor who is chasing production numbers among the responsible persons.
  • Train personnel to recognise and deal with the failure. Awareness training helps but must be backed up by reward or consequence.
  • Have a written procedure to recognise and check the failure. Do we have to have the black sealant in the end of the axe? Can we not drive the handle through the axe head and trim off the excess wood? A Quality Control inspector could then look at a large sample of axes as a control.
  • Do post production testing, and if you find a defect, remove the black sealant and sort the entire batch. This is the worst of the five solutions, as sample testing is ineffective, labour intensive and expensive. This is a last resort.

Engineering solutions to quality problems are always the best solutions, but can be expensive. Sometimes you have to try one or more of the other actions while you are waiting for the machine.


green-ink This entry was posted in. Uncategorized A study in Quality from Real Life.