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Part I: Quality Control Strategies for Lumber and Wooden Pallet Companies
Dr. Charles Ray outlines strategies to improve quality in lumber and pallet operations. His comments may change the way you look at quality in your operation.

By Dr. Charles Ray
Date Posted: 12/1/2009

            Quality Control. QC. Even the mere mention of the topic causes eyeballs to roll and most folks to start looking for the nearest exit. The next word that pops into most people’s minds is “boring.” When we think of quality control, we tend to envision a nerdy-looking guy with a tape measure and clipboard going around making all sorts of measurements and pointing out the obvious.

            Proponents and consultants of “quality control” methods in the mill tend to wind up discussing topics foreign to most mill employees…statistics, graphs, and charts. They use terminology that sounds like it comes directly from a manual of the United Bureaucrats of the World: “total quality management”, “statistical process control”, “continuous process improvement”, “six sigma”, “quality audits”, and perhaps best of all, “corrective action.”

            But generally speaking, delivering quality products and services in most fields of endeavor is really not that complicated, and shouldn’t be that intimidating. It really all boils down to one simple concept…consistency. And if you can deliver consistency in your product or service to the customer, you’ve captured the essence of how people perceive quality.

            Let me explain this concept using a mind picture. I always think of a McDonald’s hamburger when I envision a good example of quality. OK, I know they’re not the best hamburgers you can buy. But admit it…you can stop at a McDonald’s anywhere in the country, order a Quarter Pounder with cheese, and it will taste exactly like the last Quarter Pounder you ate, even if it was 600 miles away thirteen years ago. Now that’s quality.

            OK, so what’s my point? The key concept here is simply that lumber and pallet customers want exactly the same thing, every time they order it. They know there are different grades, with different performance standards…but they purchase what they need for their application, according to a description or specification. Having first experienced that product, they expect it to be exactly the same every time they order it in the future.

            The point extends to service. Not only do they want exactly the same product, they want it on exactly the same lead time, packaged the same way, with exactly the same marking and paperwork they received the last time. Any deviation from what they were happy with on their last order will be seen as a lower-quality alternative to what they wanted. Even if it’s not.

            Let’s go back to burgers. I generally like Burger King burgers better than Mickey D’s, but there’s a problem. Sometimes they get the ingredients wrong, or the bun is too dry, or it just doesn’t taste as good as the last one for some reason. So in any town I happen to be passing through, I have to make the decision…stop at McDonald’s and get the Quarter Pounder I can taste in my dreams, or stop at the Burger King and hope their staff is having a good day.

            As lumber and pallet producers, we have a problem the burger chains don’t. Wood products customers have no brand identification or loyalty. None. They may personally like you better than the guy down the road, but if they have a problem, they’d rather take their business elsewhere than take a chance on having that problem again. It’s just not worth it to them to risk a bad load. Our wood is a small fraction of their cost, whereas any problem caused by it or by our inattention to detail can increase their costs far more than paying the guy down the road an extra nickel, under the assumption that he’ll do it better.

            So you need to be the supplier that gets it right, every time. You must be seen as consistent in what you deliver and how you deliver it. And in case you don’t know it, that level of consistency is not automatic; no matter how good you are. You have to work at it. I find that there are actually at least eight key concepts that have to be actively pursued and managed for consistency to be achieved. In this two-part article, I’ll go through these eight parts in what I call the Quality Circle (Figure 1).



            Understand that with every customer order you receive, you and your employees have an obligation not only to meet the expectations of the customer, but to help them be more profitable when it’s within your means to do so. And this obligation may be more than just the product and service you’re providing; it may actually extend to understanding their business model and process so that you might be able to deliver even more value.

            For instance, a pallet customer who is purchasing A-grade pallets from a pallet recycler, but who actually only needs B-grade pallets for a portion of their product shipments will appreciate the information and assistance in finding a better product mix. And you should take the extra step to follow up and ensure it worked out for them.

            In the same way, if you can figure out a better lumber or pallet packaging solution that improves the customer’s operational costs, then you have an obligation to do so as a quality supplier. Quite simply if you cause your customer to realize less profit than he might otherwise obtain with your help, then your business will suffer in the long run.



            Quality gurus have always focused on product specifications and how manufacturing and inspection efforts relate to those specifications. In fact, the popular Six Sigma concept was originally developed out of a realization that if a product or process component could be improved beyond current specifications, then the overall product or process would benefit greatly.

            Lumber and pallets have traditionally labored under product specifications rather than use them as vehicles for improvement. The trend is that technical committees establish a generic standard for a category of wood product, and then all our products are produced, evaluated, priced, and marketed to those specifications. This situation ensures that our products continue to be viewed as commodities in which one GMA pallet is the same as another or that all stud-grade or #1 Common oak lumber is the same.

            The last decade has seen the beginnings of change in our industries, where specifications are becoming more of an understanding between customer and supplier rather than a table of numbers in a dusty old manual. This has opened up great value-adding opportunities for the innovative companies, but it has also pushed us more in the direction of Burger King with their “have-it-your-way” marketing philosophy. As I pointed out in the example, this can be a great thing for the customer, if the supplier gets it right, every time. But the first time the product or service is delivered with something less than the understood and agreed upon definition of the specification, then the customer is left with a sour taste left in his mouth.

            A great example of misunderstood specifications was provided to a pallet recycler in New York lately. His customer, a food processing company, complained that a load of pallets contained some pallets that exhibited “mold”. The customer sent the picture in Figure 2 to the pallet supplier as an example of the problem.

            Whether the pallet is in fact moldy, or if it is merely manufactured from lumber with blue-stain, is a technical issue that the customer does not really care about. What he knows is that he will not put his food products on this pallet or any other like it. This would hold true for many GMA producers. Blue-stained pallets are simply rejects in all food industry applications. It is an excellent example of how alternative pallet manufacturers can market against the “low quality” of wooden pallets. In this case, the pallet recycler’s quality control processes were not comprehensive enough to ensure that this particular customer did not receive this pallet.

            There are many ways in which the system failed to recognize this quality issue before it resulted in a customer rejection. The first was a failure for the company to fully understand that this customer’s pallet specification did not include pallets with mold or blue stain in the lumber. The next was a failure to communicate this fact to the workers filling the order.



            In order for your employees to meet the expectations of the customer, they have to understand them clearly. Given the fact that these expectations seem to be constantly changing and getting more difficult to meet, perceived or achieved quality is directly a function of how well and frequently the customer’s expectations and the product specifications are communicated to the sawyer, the pallet assembler, and the forklift driver. The best companies use dynamic white boards (Figure 3), visual grading cues (Figure 4), daily printed activity logs, messaging boards, electronic production counters, and quality-based performance incentives to improve communication of customer expectations.

            The more specific this communication, the better. Some companies go so far as having short bull sessions to discuss upcoming customer orders and to relate any feedback that can be gleaned from recently shipped loads. My experience is that supervisors sometimes dislike this type of interaction, which they see as time wasted from production, while mill workers enjoy and are motivated by this information, which provides some mental stimulation and diversion from their sometimes mind-numbing jobs. Herein lies one of the most common causes of quality shortcomings – lack of communication between the front-line supervisors and their crews. Usually, mill managers do a pretty good job of communicating general objectives to the supervisors, but the supervisors have a tougher job. They have to turn these general objectives into specific numerous actions that will accomplish a quality product under all the varying levels of expectations and specifications. The most common response to this challenge is to try to “pigeon-hole” information under the notion that individual employees will perform better the less extraneous information they have to remember.

            Fifty years ago that may have been a productive way to manage employees. But that is not the case today in this age of information. People are used to being provided information so that they better understand why they are doing what they are doing. Necessary information allows them to do their job better by thinking about what they are doing in the context of the larger picture. And it is certainly true that usually the best improvements in product or process quality come from the person most directly working on it. And yet, supervisors sometimes continue to be the bottleneck in plant communication channels. This usually results because they believe it is not in their best interest to make their crew members look too good.

            So here is the opportunity for bringing out more quality improvements through communication. You must make your supervisors understand that they will be evaluated not by how much production they churn out day after day, but by how much they manage to improve the contributions of their crew members to product and process quality through regular, detailed communication of customer requirements and the crew’s attainment of those expectations.

            Help them learn the tools that will make them better communicators, and send them on field trips to visit customer locations and discuss product and process issues with those customers. Much of this has been the domain of sales personnel in the past, but opportunities often get lost in the translation. Let the supervisors know that they will earn respect and promotion by being better advocates for the customers to their crews.

            In the reject pallet case (Figure 2) above, the plant manager printed the photo from the customer and forwarded it to the supervisor. At this point, the supervisor could have said “OK” and stuck the picture in his desk drawer. But in this case, the photograph was copied and displayed near the pallet sorting area for visual communication of the problem. As further reinforcement, the supervisor should make a point of going through stacks of pallets periodically, letting the workers know that he is keeping an eye out for “moldy” pallets and that the pallet graders should do so, also.



            This accelerated level of observation of the process is one that usually is applied in “out-of-control” situations such as a customer complaint, but not used frequently enough in normal operation of the mill. I have found there is tremendous potential to improve product and service quality simply by making determined observation of the process even when things are apparently running smoothly.

            One technique I often use is to simply position myself in an out-of-the-way location and stay there and observe things for several hours. For the first hour, the employees worry about what I am doing, but after a while they forget about it and get back to their normal routine. And usually, nothing unusual is apparent for quite a long time. But eventually, something tends to happen that makes you think “why did that happen like that?” This is the beginning of improvement.

            Again, this is a practice that most supervisors are uncomfortable with. They will cite the fact that they dislike “spying” on the employees or giving the impression that they are doing so. In fact, they are simply uncomfortable with the notion of just sitting still and doing “nothing productive”. But if plant management will emphasize that part of the supervisor’s job description includes several hours of passive “observation” per week, and that that responsibility be communicated and perhaps even shared with the floor workers, then quality improvement will invariably follow.

            These are the first critical aspects of the Quality Circle. The other half will be reviewed in the second half of this article. It will appear in a future issue of the Pallet Enterprise. You don’t need to wait to start making the Quality Circle work for your organization. Try using these first steps now to improve quality and ensure that customers will stick with you as the economy starts to recover.

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