In December of 1998, NASA launched the Mars Climate Orbiter, a robotic space probe intended as the communications relay for the Mars Polar Lander. By September of 1999, the spacecraft had disintegrated after coming too close to Mars and passing into its upper atmosphere.
The problem? A simple unit conversion error, where ground-based software produced data in non-SI units when NASA calculations were in metric units. Experts attributed the disaster—and other billion-dollar spaceflight failures that year—to poor quality control and overemphasis on cutting costs.
These problems are not uncommon in aerospace manufacturing and are often a result of failures to focus company culture around quality. This post looks at why aerospace OEMs and suppliers struggle to create a stronger culture of quality, and how to break through the status quo.
Quality is Considered an Administrative Task
One of the biggest problems standing in the way of quality culture is treating quality as an administrative function. This approach frames quality as a cost center, which in turn usually means the team has just the bare minimum resources needed for compliance.
It’s why quality professionals only make up about 1% of the average aerospace manufacturer’s workforce, while that number in automotive is closer to 4%. When you’re stretched this thin, you typically have lots of inspectors looking at end quality and few people working on quality improvement.
Bureaucratic Red Tape
Viewing quality as a cost center means that many organizations create a huge amount of red tape for any proposal aimed at quality improvement. Getting the go-ahead often requires absolute proof that any changes will result in a defined economic benefit to the company in a short period of time.
Depending on the investment, it may require multiple levels of approval. Not only does this create a bottleneck, it also means someone could do a huge amount of work only to be shot down at the director level.
The result is the stifling of innovation, leading most people to just throw up their hands and focus on their day jobs rather than improving quality.
Poor Tracking and Accountability
Ineffective tracking is also a problem for many aerospace manufacturers and makes it nearly impossible to create accountability for improving quality.
Common issues on both ends of the spectrum include:
- Not tracking quality costs: The majority of companies don’t track quality costs. Those that do frequently underestimate the costs, given the long timeline over which defects can drive up costs.
- KPI overload: Some organizations have too many metrics. Each division or group developing their own KPIs can add up to hundreds of complex metrics. Some groups may even have KPIs with the same name that they measure differently, creating further confusion.
The impact is that people often don’t even understand what the organization’s quality goals are. And if goals are unclear to your people, there’s no way to hold them accountable (or reward them) for achieving those goals.
Breaking Down Barriers to Quality Culture
Aerospace suppliers looking to create a culture of quality must first shift their mindset from viewing quality as a cost to treating it as an investment. It’s an area where the automotive industry is way ahead, recognizing that quality saves time and money while keeping customers happy.
With that in mind, manufacturers should also leverage strategies such as:
- Taking quality out of its silo: Creating a culture of quality means throwing out the idea that quality is the job of a single department. One way to make quality cross-functional is implementing internal audits like the automotive industry has with a layered process audit (LPA) program. LPAs involve people from all levels of the organization in short, frequent process audits. These repeat checks mean fewer defects over time and better control over high-risk processes.
- Making quality meaningful to the individual: Getting buy-in means communicating how each person contributes to quality, also creating defined expectations around results. Whenever possible, connect your people with the voice of the customer to share the practical impact of their work. Harnessing your team’s competitive spirit—both internally as well as with market rivals—is also effective.
- Streamlining your KPIs: Everyone needs to know the definition of each KPI and the levers to pull to achieve your targets. Creating a small set of well-defined KPIs makes it easier to update and communicate results monthly to the entire organization. You’ll find that people start looking for the report card, because they know they have the ability to drive meaningful results.
- Unleashing creativity: Quality innovation requires loosening your grip on the budget to give engineering groups and facilities more latitude for quality projects. It also means recognizing quality heroes publicly for their achievement (and maybe throwing in a financial reward as well).
One final note: none of these steps is effective without a visible top-down commitment to quality. Even if you put quality first 99 times out of 100, that one time you don’t will destroy your credibility. But if you walk the talk, making meaningful investments in quality, your team will follow.