RMA Process and Root Cause Analysis in Manufacturing

Written by Marc Leclair - Vice President of Operations
Posted on May 11, 2017 at 12:34 PM

We find that Return Merchandise Authorizations (RMAs) are a powerful statement of a customer’s level of dissatisfaction. RMAs can offer evidence that a manufacturing process fell short of its goal, there was a lack of communication throughout processes, or even  misdiagnosed a problem. In any case, we stand behind our product and are ready to support our customer.

When a customer finds that their purchased parts are unusable, they may not be able to fulfill promises to their customer(s). Skeptics claim that some customers return products for nefarious or selfish reasons. Consider how much effort a customer has to go through to return a product. If a customer goes through all that trouble to send product back to you, it is well worth your time to evaluate their complaint.

Our RMAs Share One Common Thread

Customers ask for an RMA because they need our help. Even in cases where the product meets specs or the customer may have induced the damage on the product, the RMA is a signal that the customer needs the expertise to understand or fix the problem. When customers can’t use the product that they purchased from us, they often count on us to sort out the details.

When we get product returns, we do two things:

  1. Ensure that the return is a product we manufactured.
  2. Validate the reported problem.

Sometimes the second step is quick and easy, in other cases, we may have to perform laboratory analysis to confirm the failure mode and understand the cause of the defect.

In an RMA situation, our first priority is to restore good parts to the customer. However, once we understand the product’s failure mode, we perform a Root Cause Analysis (RCA).

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Importance of a Root Cause Analysis

It is vital to get to the root cause. ASQ  (http://asq.org ) calls root cause “the evil at the bottom” that sets in motion the entire cause-and-effect chain causing the problem(s). If we can identify and fix the root cause, we will very likely prevent the problem from repeating. Textbooks make it appear that finding the root cause is trivial matter. In real life however, determining root cause is a messy iterative process.

Perhaps the difficulties that teams encounter in attempting to determine root cause is why many organizations skip over performing a thorough root cause analysis. Often teams settle for a cursory attempt at RCA and jump right in to corrective action. Quick action in response to a problem in the moment, feels customer-oriented, but often this behavior does not provide long-term benefit. Without an agreed-upon root cause for the corrective action team to rally around, improvement efforts will quickly go awry. Perhaps you have seen this:

  1. The boss picks a corrective action or two. Everyone defers to the boss.
  2. The type “A” personality does all the talking and goes ahead without consensus. While the team does develop the action plan, no one feels ownership.
  3. The team gets deadlocked. There is plenty of discussion about action, but the team cannot decide on the best set of corrective actions.

Structured Problem Solving

We use structured problem solving methods to arrive at a root cause. We go to great lengths to train our team on the Five-Why method, Cause and Effect Diagrams, and Causal Mapping. Establishing a good root cause requires discipline and focus, but with practice, you will find the root cause quickly. The teams, who sit in a conference room and try to hash out a five why, often fall short of their mark.

Determining root cause almost always requires a trip to gemba, “the place where it happens”. Root cause is also an iterative process. As you learn more about a problem, you have to keep reassessing how the facts fit together and how the facts align with the hunches and opinions of the problem solving team.

Customer Satisfaction

At Epec, we continually seek customer feedback in our efforts to provide products and services tailored to our customer’s needs. Customer visits, factory audits, and project status meetings are methods we use to establish dialog with our customers. Customer feedback is an essential input to Epec’s strategic planning, improvement projects, and operations planning.

In fact, customer feedback is so important to the continuing health of a business that monitoring customer feedback is a requirement of the ISO 9001 quality management system. Section 8.2.1 Customer Satisfaction states “…the organization shall monitor information relating to customer perception as to whether the organization has met customer requirements”.

Conclusion

An RMA product starts a chain of events, which is why it is important to have an RMA process in place. First, restore with good product, as quick as practical. Right on the heels of this activity, we evaluate the failure and work to get to the root cause of the problem. Once we establish the root cause, we work to fix the root cause of the problem, so there is little chance of this problem rearing its ugly head. This way, we’re able to continually improve, at a pace that may satisfy and even surprise – many of our customers.


Topics: US Manufacturing


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