We spoke with Robert Schmitt, Dean at RWTH Aachen University, and Rudolf Schönenberg, Head of Quality Management at ThyssenKrupp Steel Europe, about how they define and measure quality.
Mr. Schmitt, Mr. Schönenberg, can you tell us: What is quality?
Schönenberg: Well, first there are personal quality standards: My washing machine should last a long time, my detergent should do the job right, and my food shouldn’t harm me when I eat it. When it comes to our steel products, quality depends on the needs of the individual customer, so it is important for us to know all about the application for which a particular product is produced.
Schmitt: I agree. Quality is a relative construct, and when it comes to fulfilling customer needs, there is more than just one dimension to quality – there are many. One of these dimensions is certainly the properties of the product itself and its ability to fulfill the task for which it was designed. Another dimension of quality is flawlessness. Reliability, life cycle, sustainability, and company image play just as much of a role. These factors are instrumental in helping me decide on where to shop, because as a customer I am rarely in a position to be able to judge a product based on all of its properties. That’s why it’s better to just go to your favorite bakery or to a butcher you trust.
Is quality a subjective property?
Schmitt: Absolutely. There is even a specialist term for it: perceived quality. It describes the quality that I am able to detect with my senses, because I can’t judge all of the product’s characteristics on a physical or chemical level.
Is quality also related to marketing?
Schmitt: Yes, as long as the company takes it seriously. Marketing is a promise that I make to the market. I have to ask: Where do I want to position myself? As one of many? Am I the cheap alternative, or am I the reliable one who is energy efficient, who delivers on time, who responds quickly to market fluctuations, and who resolves errors as they arise? If you can meet these criteria, that is the hallmark of quality.
Schönenberg: Quality is the product of combining all of these requirements into a single, optimized whole – just like these clocks here at the museum. All of the cogs have to fit together to create a system that operates as a single unit and keeps everything running.
Schmitt: It is important that industrial operations distance themselves from the notion of ‘craft’. We are in a museum because it shows how products were made in the past. The art of industry lies not in creating a single, perfect object, but rather in the ability to make that promise of perfection over and over again in the long term. That is the dimension of quality as it applies to design.
Schönenberg: When we apply that idea to our company, it means we have to produce a coil material that has the same mechanical properties every single time so that, for example, an automotive producer can use it to make one engine hood after another – regardless of whether they’re in France, Japan, or Turkey.
How is that possible?
Schönenberg: The key lies in the standardization of production processes. Of course, that’s no simple task in the steel industry as there are so many different steps that take place between the production of the steel itself and the process of shipping the various materials.
Schmitt: You can see how complicated that is. You start with different materials, but you have to end up with the same product. It makes having an understanding of the material and knowledge of physics and chemistry – as well as the production processes involved – very important. Above all, the employees must understand exactly what they are doing.
Schönenberg: This ‘operational excellence’ is an important point, but it doesn’t mean that we need to employ engineers to do every single job. The employees have to develop an understanding of the big picture so that they can see why standardization is so important.
You mean transparency at all levels?
Schönenberg: Yes, I need transparency in my own processes to identify potential problems and determine what I need to do to stop those problems from spreading. In addition, modern systems generate vast amounts of data that we need to evaluate. The biggest challenge here is to determine which of these many pieces of information are significant to the process at hand.
Schmitt: And to do that, we need employees who understand the processes that produce these data. The future looks very promising indeed when we consider the fact that we will be able to use the properties of the material itself to predict which parameters to select in order to produce the exact product we need. It’s no longer a matter of trial and error, it’s about using data.
Schönenberg: In the case of steel, it is particularly important to make the best possible use of these data. We need the expertise and the systems to allow us to work with data – and we need the right employees for the job.
So quality as such seems to be in constant flux…
Schmitt: Exactly. Quality management is the engine we need to prevent complacency and keep a company moving in the right direction.
Schönenberg: We can never be satisfied, and we have to move past our comfort zone; otherwise, we risk standing still. That would be fatal for a Group like ours.
Schmitt: Companies that stop questioning themselves get left in the dust. More and more competitors are entering the market, rapid developments are being made, and production cycles are getting shorter. Customer loyalty is dwindling, and the company with the best solution for future challenges is rewarded in the end.