Quality Is Not the Exclusive Domain of the Quality Department

By Daniel R. Matlis

At this year’s Camstar Customer Conference  Larry Dube, Vice President for Operations at NP Medical, presented a session entitled “quality (with a small q): Prevention, Analysis and Improvement.” Mr. Dube has a track record of successfully leading Medical Device organizations through cultural change and is a proponent of lean manufacturing.

np-medicalNP Medical is an OEM supplier of drug and fluid access devices and components that ultimately help guard both patient and healthcare provider once incorporated into the world’s most precise medical device technologies.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Dube about his approach to quality in the Medical Device industry. This article distills key points of our conversation.

In many organizations functional boundaries and silos have developed over the years regarding who is responsible for quality. Most Life-Science manufacturers are organized in well-defined and delineated functional areas, each with specific roles and responsibilities. Each of these functional areas have traditionally operated as silos or stove pipes, having their own well defined, independent and often unaligned goals, objectives and incentives. This level of independence has led to the “catapult effect”, where deliverables are thrown over the wall to the next functional area to deal with. See the article at https://axendia.com/blog/2007/06/13/tilting-at-windmills/

Mr. Dube’s perspective is that quality is everyone’s responsibility, not the exclusive domain of the Quality Department. “In some Medical Device companies, the organizational culture has developed in such a way that certain people are responsible for making the products and then they throw it all over the wall to somebody else to inspect it. In that scenario, the Quality Department ends up ultimately owning the responsibility for the product quality. This is just inefficient. I’m a big proponent of lean manufacturing and that is the antithesis of lean manufacturing,” he told me.

The implementing of a culture of quality (small “q”) throughout an organization, rather than leaving the entire responsibility to the Quality (large “Q”) Department is a major adjustment for many Life Science companies. As Mr. Dube commented: “It’s a big shift in ownership and mentality for the responsibility for quality; and changes the focus of the Quality Department to Quality Assurance.” This QA process is more akin to an auditing or verification process aimed at ensuring that processes remain within their validated parameters and specification rather than ongoing inspection of the product.

Driving this need for change at NP Medical is the high volume of product and the impossibility of testing hundreds of millions of units per year. To enable this culture shift, NP is implementing an MES strategy.

NP Medical plans to achieve several objectives with their MES implementation. First there are some savings from labor recapture (from replacing a manual paper-based process). More importantly, MES provides the capability to capture information automatically, monitor processes in real-time and the ability to react more quickly to process or product quality issues. According to Mr. Dube: “The sooner we can figure out that there’s something wrong, the easier it is to understand the root cause, and implement corrective actions.” And lastly, there is the savings from limiting scrap costs and tying up inventory.

The ultimate goal for NP Medical’s MES implementation is to have inspection by exception as opposed to inspections as the rule. Achieving this goal requires a phased approach: collect data, continue testing, compare data to test results, implement analytics software, look at correlation between certain process parameters and establish control limits. As a better understanding of the process develops it may require some modification to the automation equipment or tooling upgrades in order to provide the types of control needed. If a process parameter is important but unable to meet control limits, the design parameters may need to be revisited. And this is where the MES system can help as noted by Mr. Dube: “Just like it can help get to root causes of a particular problem, it can also help to justify making go/no go types of decisions. If I’m not getting what I expected out of this particular process I can stop.”

Moving to an MES environment is not just about implementing the technology. A company must have not only the resources needed to make this type of investment but also the willingness to commit to changing the organizational culture as well as long-term vision to implement based on long-term results. Unfortunately, there is generally an external trigger, some sort of compelling event (like an FDA audit or a product recall) that drives the decision to implement a technology solution.

Whatever the reason for implementing MES, a key outcome of the successful implementation of an MES strategy is that quality must become everyone’s job. “Putting information in the hands of the operators permits them to make assessments now and adjustments now and allows the transition to a corporate wide culture of quality to happen,” concluded Mr. Dube.

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