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Philips and the University of Brighton set up a Teaching Company Scheme. They wanted to cut the rate of customer returns for fan heaters. I joined the scheme and took on the project a year after graduation.

The factory Quality Manager sponsored the project and was my industry mentor. The University assigned a mentor from their manufacturing faculty. As fan heaters are seasonal products, I recommended focusing on kettles. The factory made over a million kettles a year which had higher than average returns rates. We adopted six sigma, and the university assigned a statistical researcher.

Transforming quality with six sigma

Define

Our goal was “to reduce designed and manufactured defects in kettles as measured by customer returns”. I took the cost of returns as the same as the cost of production. [Today, I would add other costs. Such as the cost of the returns department, reputation costs, lost profit and disposal costs.]

pareto of technical and non technical faults

Measure

Philips assessed 20% of all product returns in each primary market. The UK returns centre was in Croydon. Our factory inspected all other returned kettles. These assessments provided most of my data and revealed some technical issues. But over half the returns had ‘no fault found’. To get to the heart of returns with no technical cause, I developed additional data sources:

  • Customer-eyes inspection of life test kettles
  • Home trials
  • Retailer visits – to headquarters and stores
  • Consumers – I contacted consumers through warranty data and by meeting them in-store. I visited two consumers at home to see how they used their kettles
  • Inspection centres to record the stated reason for return

Analyse

I identified and found the root cause of all technical faults.

For the non-technical faults, I stepped into the role of the consumer. With this changed perspective, I better understood comments such as ‘wrong colour’ (see below) and could infer reasons for return.

Improve

With Engineering, I built a business case to resolve in-house technical issues. I also worked with Purchasing to address issues with the switch and element. We could only introduce some technical improvements on future models.

However, I focused on the more numerous non-technical faults. I built a consensus for change and had several successes. For example, Industrial Design adopted my suggestion to change colour for the current product range. Philips usually only changes colour on new ranges. On my recommendation, Phillips introduced a water level indicator on the next model.

Unfortunately, my recommendation for a large group of returns fell on stony ground. Marketing felt more people were happy than unhappy with the length of the rolling boil.

Control

To assess the improvements, I changed the data collection and analysis in the returns teams. Our data showed that returns rates dropped when we introduced modifications.

I estimated the cost savings for future kettles at over half a million pounds a year. Our major customers, Argos and Marks and Spencer, recognised the improved quality.

Achievements

As well as transforming quality:
– I stopped the use of ‘no fault found’ replacing it with ‘non-technical’. The old term removed ownership from the team; the new term encouraged customer-centricity.
– I earned an MSc in the Improvement of Manufactured and Designed Quality of Kettles.
– In my first week, I observed a repeated failure in life test. I persuaded the Design Engineer to make a minor modification. The design change probably prevented a return rate of around forty percent. And averted irreversible damage to our relationships with key retailers.
– Working with our element manufacturer, I pinpointed a manufacturing process failure. Our support opened the door for purchasing to negotiate a price reduction
– Changes applied to the existing product reduced returns by over 30%.
– Changes applied to next product reduced returns by 60-80%, equating to £600,000 per year.
– I coached design and production teams. Providing the ‘Voice of the Customer’ in seminars and decision-making
– I introduced the ethos idea that we were selling cups of tea, not kettles
– I applied learning to fan heaters, assessing returns and driving improvements in product marking and instructions.
– Took up a permanent role, first as Supply Chain Quality Engineer and then as Design Quality Engineer.
– As a permanent member of staff, I assessed products returned as part of legal claims for compensation.
– Nominated for a Chairman’s awards, meeting the Philips’ Chairman and featuring in a video during a global awayday.

Key skills

Business analysis – applying statistical techniques, assessing qualitative data and providing business insight.

Project management – from defining requirements and setting up governance, to planning and delivering a range of cross-functional requirements.

Stakeholder engagement – working with major UK retailers at all levels, consumers and across Philips. I built an understanding of many perspectives and learnt how to influence change.

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