Steinbeis experts develop error reduction method for trade businesses

Craftsmen hate it when they make mistakes and waste materials. It’s expensive and annoys customers. In more and more construction projects the error rates are rising, as are prices and the costs of corrective measures. According to an analysis by BauInfo-Consult, based on a sample of 1,800 interviews conducted between 2014 and 2015, 541 of the architects and developers surveyed estimated that the average cost of errors amounts to 11% of industry turnover. In 2014, a dozen or so companies from the region of Eastern Westphalia- Lippe agreed to test a quality improvement and error avoidance method that is specially geared to trade businesses and SMEs. The idea was initiated by Professor Dr.-Ing. Ralf Hörstmeier, director of the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Applied Motion Technology. He is also involved in research and teaching at the faculty of engineering and mathematical sciences of Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences. Working in alliance with other partners, he has adapted industrial tools to match the needs of craftsmen and introduced them to the market as the “VFMEA method”.

Industry has been using quality assurance methods for decades to eliminate or significantly reduce errors and their consequences. Ralf Hörstmeier has now adapted a method of error avoidance to create a tool suitable for craftsmen. It also covers the issue of wastage. VFMEA (a German acronym for “waste, potential error and influence analysis”) is the name of this enhanced tool which he has been developing since 2013, making it adaptable to the size of the individual trade business, its specific processes, and the experience of all its employees. Carpentry, electrician, and painting firms were among those involved in developing the tool.

What inspired Mr Hörstmeier and his VFMEA team was the idea of offering “help to help yourself.” The process let the owners of small businesses and their employees turn the spotlight on structures and processes. Based on a template covering organisation, communication, personnel, customer contacts, works orders, andpurchasing, they looked at known errors, their causes, and any interconnections, with a view to exploring potential for improvements. Mr Hörstmeier has included nine types of wastage in the project analysis, relating to orderliness, movements, transportation, rework, employee assignment, waiting times, organisation, communication, and energy. The final result of each project is a full documentation with an individual catalogue of measures for the company concerned. “Then it’s up to the firms what they do next,” explains the project initiator, “but it’s a manageable method in terms of the time and financial investment involved and it lays a foundation for the future.”

One of the companies taking part in the pilot scheme was a painting business with a history going back 140 years. According to the owner, the VFMEA method is a good fit with their quality expectations. It was of paramount importance that the company’s eight skilled craftsmen, senior and junior ones alike, were involved in the process. “We worked with the external team of moderators to draft a list of errors and wastage in all areas of the company,” says the master painter. “For me it was a real eye-opener that there was so much agreement where the starting points were for errors.” The list will form the basis for future optimisations. “There has been a bit of a shift in mindset,” continues the company owner. “It is noticeable that my staff are taking more initiative and responsibility.” The insights gained have already resulted in improved processes, from driving to construction sites to project scheduling. Customer satisfaction has also risen.

“Irrespective of the size or success of a company, there is always room for improvement,” says Lena Strothmann, President of the Chamber of Trade for Eastern Westphalia-Lippe in Bielefeld, “so one thing you have to do is pinpoint the potential to save money and eradicate errors. But often it’s just improvements in communication that make you more successful.”The VFMEA method has been beneficial to all the firms involved. Many have noticed that customer complaints have reduced to a minimum, reducing costs accordingly. A better business image and raised competitiveness have also been noticed. With the support of the Association of German Engineers (VDI) and the Chamber of Trade for the Stuttgart Region, the method is currently being introduced to businesses in Baden- Württemberg, focusing on practical application in small firms, mediumsized enterprises and trades from all business sectors.

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