A Holistic Approach to Quality: A Post Quality-Show Q&A with 2023 Plant of the Year Honoree, Reed Switch Developments Corp.

A Holistic Approach to Quality: 2023 Plant of Year - Reed Switch Developments Corp

This year’s Quality Show at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois, saw record onsite and virtual attendance numbers. From speaking with multiple exhibitors and presenters, two consistent themes emerged: increased exhibitor focus on the adoptions of digital transformation, factory automation, and robotics, as focused parts of a company’s overall quality management strategy; and the desire of exhibiting and presenting companies to pursue a more holistic approach to quality.

One industry manufacturer that’s actively staying ahead of these trends is none other than 2023 Quality Magazine Plant of the Year Honoree, Reed Switch Developments Corp. As a special contributor to this month’s Quality Magazine, I sat down with Debra Dahlin, company president, and Engineering and QA Manager, Jeff Rosenbaum, to talk more about their team’s holistic approach to quality. While the online version ran in an abbreviated form (click here to view), the full length Q&A may be found below:

Debra Dahlin: Well, since last update, and as you know from your own contributions as our fractional CMO/CBDO, we are having an exceptional sales year, up 25% from 2023. It’s a very exciting time. We’re so grateful to all of our customers, partners, and stakeholders for the continued trust and confidence that they place in our company and its products.

Jeff Rosenbaum: For us to be witnessing such continued growth, especially in terms of the ever-increasing numbers of prototype sample orders that we observe being placed through our global distribution partners, Digi-Key, McMaster Carr, and Amazon, it only serves to reaffirm our continued need to prioritize quality. We are never complacent. That’s why we choose to remain dedicated to key continuous quality improvement initiatives, like diversifying our strategic raw materials sourcing, achieving zero-defect manufacturing, and ensuring on-time-to-promise customer deliveries. And all the while, continuing to provide our existing customer base with exceptional technical support.

Debra Dahlin: I’d say that it’s our holistic approach to quality. Our commitment to quality begins right at the new job candidate evaluation stage. Our quality-conscious organizational culture is everything to us. So, we make certain to only recruit and hire individuals who not only share in our core values of high integrity, teamwork, proactivity, and strong work ethic, but also those who are dedicated to their own ongoing professional skills development as part of our team.

Jeff Rosenbaum: Once we hire a new candidate, our primary goal is to set them up for success. To help with that, each new hire undergoes an extensive 90-day training and orientation process, during which we actively mentor and acclimate them to our in-house quality management practices. We believe that each employee arrives to work with a strong daily desire to excel in their role(s). It’s our job to help them do that. We understand that quality issues can and will arise on the job because, after all, we’re human. It’s a part of doing business. We therefore strive to address any issues as they arise, quickly, without placing blame, and with integrity and purpose. When those concerns arise, our focus then near-immediately shifts to the work processes that were followed leading up to an error, identifying any quality concern root causes, and focusing on corrective actions, training, and process documentation improvements.

For instance, we’ll look at factors such as seeing whether we may have somehow missed a step in our internal job process documentation, or whether a process might require additional training. We’ll evaluate whether our current work instructions are sufficiently clear and easy to follow, or whether they need revisions. We’ll evaluate whether better in-house tooling might be necessary, or whether a supplier component quality issue has been identified. We encourage all of our employees to be active stakeholders in root cause analysis and corrective action, without fear of reprisal. If we see something, we say something. We don’t ever point fingers, we simply work together as a team to identify and solve problems. We’ve found over time that having that sort of true employee engagement tends to increase their willingness to identify issues as they arise, in real-time, and to embrace changes.

On the manufacturing side, most new customer orders advance beyond the prototype stage and into larger volumes made to exacting standards. This means that each new product we make will typically differ in design from one order to the next. To help our team achieve zero-defect manufacturing of custom products, we establish new work instructions for each new prototype job. We ensure that lean manufacturing and quality assurance guidelines, along with work instructions, are integrated into that process from conception through production — even on a single piece prototype. This ensures that each new job has a future standardized in-house manufacturing and quality assurance process that is already associated with it by the time that prototype order ships. This way, when a customer is ready to place higher volumes, we are immediately equipped to support them. This is also why we can efficiently produce small-to-medium sized custom volumes, typically in shorter lead times than can be found among many of the industry’s standards. As a team, we are exceptionally proud of our in-house capabilities in this area.

Debra Dahlin: From customer feedback, we know that our repeat business metric is unusually high. We believe that’s due to our excellent product quality, technical support, and customer service.  

Jeff Rosenbaum: We’ve always been a 100% U.S. based manufacturer. Each product is designed and assembled in-house exclusively at our Racine-based manufacturing facility. We know that, whenever an order is going out the door, we can meticulously account for each internal process step followed. We take pride in the true team effort that goes into every order. We also know that we can easily replicate that same standard of quality on the next order.

Debra Dahlin: We embrace a culture of caring, whether that’s about ensuring that a job is well done, supporting our customers, employees, and their families, or contributing to the communities in which we live and work. Over the years, we’ve realized that by recognizing employee accomplishments and rewarding exemplary character, and even by organizing external team charity and team-building events, that our employees remain a more cohesive team, and thus are more quality-conscious. I also believe that this is why our employee retention rates are unusually high. By having so many employees with us for as many as 35 years or more, we have been able to really enhance our overall product quality, stabilize our manufacturing operations, and build industry confidence in our brand. It’s also allowed us to cultivate a true internal team of experts that’s not found elsewhere in the industry.

That said, we also acknowledge as a business that we definitely need a highly specific type of experienced global industry talent in order to take our business to the next level. It’s a type of talent that we know does not exist in-house. Finding this expertise is challenging within the industry. Our approach to quality therefore also includes bringing in industry experts, like Embassy Global, LLC — you and your team have brought us over $800,000 in new business this year! — to fill those highly specialized talent gaps on a fractional, or outsourced, basis. In the case of Embassy Global, the longevity of our partnership, ongoing now since 2014, has also provided us with a significant competitive advantage.

I would say that, overall, and as a manufacturer, it was only when we began to take a more holistic view of quality and extended that into every last possible facet of our operations that we saw real transformation taking place. That is what has brought us to where we are today, and I strongly believe, what will sustain us well into the future.

Jeff Rosenbaum: Truly, it begins on a grassroots level, with individual employees and ongoing internal collaborative dialogue. Leadership must be willing to listen, and learn, from those who are actually responsible for carrying out the work. Those  ‘frontline expert’ insights are especially valuable, as they are rooted in a uniquely in-depth understanding of the tasks at hand.

Debra Dahlin: We believe that employees should be actively encouraged, incentivized, and rewarded for contributing their own ideas for improvements throughout the business, and particularly in their own duties, processes, and work instructions. We do this internally at Reed Switch Developments Corp. as part of our employee incentives program, which directly rewards individual team members for offering their own impactful ideas for continuous quality improvement.

Debra Dahlin: I am a second-generation family small business owner. We have enjoyed 56 years of operation thus far, with no signs of slowing down! For our family, it has never been solely about the bottom line. It’s been about creating a stable and family-oriented professional atmosphere, one where our employees can find genuine security, stability, and continuity. I take great pride in our culture and am dedicated to nurturing it. We are meticulous in ensuring that any new employee whom we might opt to bring into the business fits seamlessly into our culture and, most importantly, shares our values. I’ve observed over time that, when we focus our efforts on developing people, processes, talent, and taking that holistic approach to quality, bottom-line growth has tended to follow.

Jeff Rosenbaum: We believe that it will enhance our staff ergonomics, streamline in-house processes and efficiencies, enable higher-volume production capabilities, and facilitate greater standardization within our custom product development processes.

To visit our dedicated Quality page, and learn more about the Reed Switch Developments Corp. holistic approach to quality, please visit https://www.reedswitchdevelopments.com/quality-at-reed-switch-developments/

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