What does it take to boost quality and reliability?

-March 05, 2013

We have much in common with our customers:  At Agilent, we design and manufacture electronic devices and so do our customers. We care about the quality and reliability of our products and so do our customers. And the cost of ownership of the tools we use to create our products is as important to us as cost of ownership is to our customers.

Reliability is a big deal. Downtime is costly. We understand the impact of a test-instrument failure. If a test instrument goes down, you have to have spares on hand, rent a replacement, or do without for some period of time. All of these options cost you money or slow you down -- or both.

If you've been an engineer for at least a decade, you may remember back to our HP days, and you may have fond memories of the great reliability our instruments offered at that time. Interestingly, we compared our current reliability metrics to what they were when Agilent's test and measurement business was still part of HP, and we found that we now have the best reliability in our history. As a matter of fact, we have reduced failure rates by 50% over the last 10 years. 

So what did it take to pull off the reduction in failure rates? Here's what we did:
  • We implemented a systematic customer feedback process. We analyze quality from multiple angles and evaluate failures to root cause so we know where to focus our improvement efforts. Looking at various metrics allows us to understand which products are doing well and which ones are not. Once we identify a product that is not measuring up, we look at other products of similar complexity that are doing well and adopt best practices from them, adapt them as necessary, and apply them to the products that need help.
  • We established a set of formal tools and processes for R&D engineers and quality managers to use in product development. They can choose the parts, processes, and test procedures at every stage in the design process to create the most reliable instrument possible.
  • We set extremely high expectations for reliability for new products. We require the reliability of each design to be higher than the previous generation of products. And then we grade ourselves on how well we have met that standard.

I know it sounds simple when I describe it, but it is not simple. It took a lot of work to systematically apply these steps to all of our instruments, to get everyone in the organization aligned, and to develop a culture where an unwavering commitment to continuous improvement can thrive.

The steps outlined above have given us good results over the long haul. They have even made it possible for us to offer three-year standard warranty on all instruments. I suspect there are other approaches you can use to boost your product quality. What does your company do?

About the Author
Eric Taylor vice president EMG Customer Experience and Quality, Agilent Technologies Inc. Eric Taylor joined the company in 1992 at the former Colorado Springs Division. He held a variety of positions before being promoted to product support manager in the Electronic Measurements Division in 1997, where he worked on several cross-EMG processes, such as out-of-box defects. Over the next four years, he held several division marketing positions, including sales and business development manager for the Measurement Products Unit, and division marketing manager for the former Basic, Emerging, System Test (BEST) Division.

In 2002, Eric joined the product planning team for the System Products Division, where he developed roadmaps for several product categories and was instrumental in the development of the 34980A LAN-based switch/measure unit. He next accepted a position in MIBU marketing managing cross-EMG marketing programs and, with his team, helped create the LXI Standard for the LXI Consortium. In 2006, Eric was named the EMG strategic planning manager, working with EMG senior management to develop long-term goals and strategies. He accepted his current assignment in May 2008. Eric holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Central Michigan University, and an MBA from the University of Arizona.

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