The ultimate success (or failure) of any production operation depends primarily upon one thing: quality control. It doesn’t matter how well-designed your line is, or if you’re using the best possible materials; if the production is rushed, sloppy, or just plain wrong, you will be stuck with product that you can’t sell. At least not at full price! Given that sales are your lifeblood, ensuring that you produce a quality product should be the foundation of your entire business.
Since most designers and entrepreneurs are contracting their production to 3rd party suppliers – instead of owning and operating their own factory – quality control activities are technically the supplier’s responsibility. But something that many designers have learned (often the hard way) is that no one cares or knows as much about your line as you do. So while you may not be running the factory, you do need to run your own QC.
A basic component of QC is the use of a Quality Control Manual. This manual is used by suppliers as a helpful guide prior to and during production. Post-production, the manual is again the reference point for making sure a supplier has used the correct materials, sewed or assembled the item properly, and boxed everything according to your shipping requirements.
One of the biggest mistakes new entrepreneur’s make is to assume that they and their supply partners will remember everything that has been discussed and decided on during the design and sampling phase. Manufacturing involves lots of moving pieces, and it just takes one incorrect measurement or swapped material to make an entire production run useless.
Step 1: Identify Specifications
The first step in creating a Quality Control Manual is to define your product’s specifications. Specifications include materials and components (including colors and finish), assembly and workmanship, the size, weight, and measurements of each piece, packaging instructions like labels, tags, and stickers, and specs for the shipping cartons and labels. Most of this information will have already been compiled in Tech Packs or production documents, and some designers will choose to just copy pages of a production guide as part of their manual. Best practice is to show diagrams or photos with detailed markings, and a spreadsheet with corresponding data, but as long as the specs are clear and correct, it is up to you how you communicate them.
Along with noting the required specification for each design facet, many designers will also note ‘tolerances’ on their Quality Control Manual. A tolerance is an allowed variation from the required specs that will not compromise the integrity of the product. For example, a label can be sewn 2” from the top seam, +/- ¼”, with the ¼ allowance being the tolerance. Some points of specification like the use of a certain material will not have a tolerance. When applicable, tolerances are usually shown next to each point of specification in the manual.
Step 2: Identify Defects
A defect is any variation from your design that lessens your item’s value. For example, a noticeable rip or upside-down label. Defects are usually categorized as Critical, Major, and Minor. A Critical Defect is something dangerous that could hurt the end user, like a sharp object or unmarked flammable substance. A Major Defect is something that most buyers would find unacceptable about the product, therefore limiting your sales potential. A Minor Defect may or may not be a problem for the end buyer, but it is still out of conformity with the specifications.
A list of defects, organized by classification, is included in a separate section in the Quality Control Manual. This list can be a chart with descriptions and is sometimes accompanied by diagrams or pictures. Some companies will also note a test that should be performed in order to check for a defect, like opening and closing a clasp or doing a stress test on a seam.
There are a few reasons it’s important to outline what you consider defective. One is that if you have someone other than yourself performing quality control inspections, they will need firm guidelines about what to reject and what to accept. If you leave it ‘up in the air’, what someone else considers slightly defective may be a major concern to you!
The second benefit is that it allows you to properly evaluate your supplier. Acceptable defect levels vary by industry, but most companies have no tolerance for Critical Defects, yet allow up to 2.5% Major Defects per run and 4.0% Minor Defects. No supplier is going to be perfect, but they shouldn’t be consistently poor performers either. By having a system to categorize and track defects found on each production run, you can provide precise feedback and make informed decisions about your supplier partnerships.
Step 3: Communicate with Suppliers
Once your specifications, defects, and any other related instructions are ‘down on paper’, you have a simple Quality Control Manual in place. It should be saved as digital file that anyone can open but some suppliers still prefer hard copies of documents, so ask them what works best before sending.
A separate Quality Control Manual should be created and sent for each item in your line, and you may want to add a cover page with the name of the product and a corresponding photo to stay organized. You should also have a ‘Last Update Date’ somewhere visible on the document so that as you make changes, old copies are no longer being referenced.
Let suppliers know how important it is to you that they review the manual before starting production. You may even want to ask them to sign something stating that they have received and reviewed it! It’s also smart to emphasize any unusual or highly important specifications, defects that concern you, or tests that will be performed during your phone, e-mail, or face-to-face communications. When it comes to Quality Control, you can never be too safe.