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Building Customer Satisfaction

Rob Rule

Voice of the customer drives Applied’s continuous improvement initiatives

Applied Materials’ success depends on serving customers well—not just once, but over and over, as new generations of devices and production tools evolve.

To evolve our operations so that Applied Materials can consistently deliver competitive products and services, superior customer experiences and healthy business results, we engage in ongoing efforts to sustain and strengthen a culture of systematic, companywide continuous improvement.

In March 2012, we centralized all our continuous improvement initiatives under one Global Continuous Improvement (GCI) team in a formalized effort to drive both greater customer satisfaction and improved business results through sustained improvements in speed, quality, and cost. The GCI team’s mission is to accomplish this by improving and accelerating business processes, empowering employees, and embedding a culture of continuous improvement across the corporation.

Continuous improvement (CI) is generally defined as a collection of activities used to improve the ability of core processes to meet customer requirements. For us it means listen-ing to customers, improving our processes, and reducing variation, defects and waste.

  • Customers: Improvement begins with an accurate and comprehensive understanding of what the customer is telling us, then translating that customer “voice” into specific measureable items called critical to quality metrics (CTQs).
  • Processes: In CI, all work is viewed as process and has a clear start, finish, inputs and outputs. The “improvement” part of CI focuses on how we make these processes more successful at delivering services that meet our CTQs.
  • Variation and waste: When processes don’t meet our CTQs, it’s typically because the process steps demonstrate excessive variation and/or waste.

IMPROVING SERVICE DELIVERY

A key initiative in Applied’s CI effort targets improvements in the delivery of customer services—field service, parts and product support. The focus is on continually improving the capability of our core service processes to enhance the speed, quality and value we provide.

For example, in an Applied Materials Voice of the Customer (VoC) survey, respondents stressed that the predictability of tool uptime was important to them. Additionally, they indicated that Applied could improve the speed with which service issues were resolved.

In response, Applied Global Services (AGS) developed new platform-focused service options that can help pinpoint toolset-specific performance parameters. This approach enables faster detection, prediction and resolution of performance issues specific to those tools. In addition, AGS defined specific CTQ measurements related to speed and availability, and launched multiple service delivery improvement projects for customers on service contracts.

One of these projects examined the speed with which Applied resolved particle issues. While AGS was meeting contract commitments for tool performance, a deeper and more thorough look at our performance revealed a significant opportunity to improve resolution times. Particle events are a great candidate for process improvement because they can be complicated to diagnose and require actions that involve a lot of inherent wait time. At any step in the particle recovery process, for example, Applied customer engineers (CEs) can find themselves waiting for test wafers, for parts, or for a chamber to reach operating conditions.

The project team realized that while CEs couldn’t eliminate all the wait time associated with recovery, they could standardize response actions to minimize the number of cases where unnecessary wait time was incurred. The team then consolidated existing technical and process knowledge from our product support teams and process labs to develop standard response guides. Key elements of the new response guides included:

  • Specific, standard, immediate-response actions to validate failures and avoid lost production time due to false alarms.
  • Situational procedures to mitigate particle levels and avoid invasive corrective actions.
  • A catalog of common “known sources” to aid troubleshooting and avoid the need for excessive partitioning tests.

By rolling out these new standards, the project team drove a >50% reduction in the number of long-duration particle events (see figure 1). That in turn reduced the average AGS response time for such events, better enabling us to help customers achieve their production goals.

Figure 1. The trend chart above shows the proportion of customer tool particle events for which there was a lengthy resolution time. Standardizing Applied Materials’ responses to resolution of particle events resulted in performance improvement of over 50%.

BETTER COMMUNICATION OF SPARE PART CHANGES

Applied Materials is also focusing on improving customer experiences related to spare part services. We learned from our VoC survey that customers wanted more effective and more timely notification of engineering or supply changes to spare parts. Customers could then use this information to plan for change and ensure they had adequate time to complete any necessary testing and qualification.

Accordingly, Applied launched two CI projects. The first redesigned the communication process so that customers on service contracts receive clear and relevant information on the specific parts they use. The second increased the lead time of these notifications to give customers more time to assess and prepare for change and help them minimize disruptions to their operations.

As a result, more than 80% of contract part change notifications are now delivered to contract customers at least 180 days prior to taking effect, compared to just 30% before.

AN ONGOING EFFORT

Applied Materials invests aggressively in CI efforts. These include advanced training and information systems for CEs, improved demand planning, and Lean Six Sigma initiatives led by “black belt” experts, using tested, world-class methodologies to systematically track, analyze and upgrade our own performance.

In CI there is no “finish line.” There will always be room for us to improve our delivery of products and services that delight our customers. Applied’s new GCI initiatives are a tangible expression of our commitment to the future and to our customers’ success.

For additional information, contact robert_rule@amat.com.