Confessions of a Quality Manager  

Being the adventures of four jet-setting quality consultants who like to talk shop even more than they like good food and drink.

This is fantasy consulting. For the real thing, go to Fell Services' Quality pages.

It happened at Ulm. That's the only place in the world where you celebrate the Chinese New Year with gluhwein. Deitrich was being more civilised: single malt. He'd laughed when I'd ordered, shuddered when I'd asked for it to be served with warm orange juice. We were swopping puns about benchmarking, when Horace waddled in. I admit I don't terribly like everyone else talking foreign, especially when they're obviously having fun, so we switched to English. Pity: the growling cascade of a series of German subordinate clauses can be very sexy. English just doesn't compare, particularly technical English.

Horace was actually pretty good at benchmarking. Once he admitted that other organisations had best practices which his own corporation could identify and learn from as part of the continuous improvement culture, he followed the process step by inexorable step. His preparations were so detailed that his benchmarking partners sometimes commented (privately) that they felt the exercise was over before it had begun, but the words "ambiguity", "confusion" and "Horace" were never uttered in the same sentence - not about benchmarking, that is. You always knew that Horace was undertaking a new project when the legal department became visible. Julia would wander through and spend many hours going over the legal implications and minimising the commercial sensitivity. Then she'd pull one of her gargoyle faces and start vetting the questionnaire and agenda. Once she'd reluctantly agreed that it was all systems go and had negotiated what level of information we could release, then all of a sudden there was a blizzard of emails and white paper.

Of course, Horace had to justify his benchmarking by showing the potential for cost savings and improved techniques. He had to report back what was discovered, show the gap between the ideal and actual as far as our company was concerned and then produce concise plans for improvement - nothing too complicated, usually one page reports with multipage appendices used only for (his) reference.

I tended to take the Henry Ford approach, though why he was in a Chicago slaughter house at all, I've no idea. Apparently he was casually watching men cut meat, each man performing a task and then passing it on, and adapted this Tayloresque theory when setting up the world's first assembly line to produce magnetos. I've got his quote in a fancy font pinned up behind my PC: "The man who places the part will not fasten it ... The man who starts the nut will not tighten it". though, actually, to put things into perspective, I've also got a cute little anonymous quote which says succinctly: "There is no mistake so bad that recovery is not possible. Failure is not so much being kicked down as not getting up again".

I like the idea of using ideas from one industry as part of a continuous improvement initiative for another. The neatest example I've come across dates from the 1980s. No, it's not Rank Xerox, who grabbed all the credit for logical benchmarking as a tool for competitive advantage. It's Maybelline, the cosmetics plant. Well, actually, I mean it's the Remington Rifle Company in Arkansas who had a tiny technical problem. Their customers wanted shinier shells: not more effective, just prettier. Someone (a woman who wants to remain anonymous, though if it were me, I'd grab all the credit) made the leap of imagination between shape and size of lipstick cartridges and the shape and size of rifle shells and a daring benchmarking exercise was born. But it did need everyone concerned, at least to start with, to have a rather weird sense of humour.

My company worships Japanese manufacturing techniques to the extent that I've sometimes wondered why we don't all have to learn a few crucial phrases in Japanese like "We are all willingly empowered to improve our routine working practices". (The news that Japan's unemployment rate rose to 5.6% in December 2001 and that Japan is currently trapped in a threefold necklock of debt, deflation and political deadlock is not being widely publicised right now). Course, we're already tossing about stray words like Kaizen and Gemba and Hai, though I don't actually watch Studio Ghibli anime films just to learn Japanese, they're just superb in their own right. Though, after watching "Grave of the Fireflies" the general reaction was that if there had been a rifle under every cinema seat, everyone would have killed themselves. I'm getting off the point ... I have to look back to remember what was the point ... oh yes. Back in the golden days of 1950 when the American Dream was riding high and Japan was struggling to recover from the WWII disaster, Eliji Toyoda was sent to the States to study manufacturing methods. He went to all the major automobile makers, but he also must have spent some time in supermarkets watching how the shelves were replenished nightly, ready for the maurauding hordes, I mean customers, in the morning. Toyoda learned plenty about automobile makers, but the supermarket experience developed into Toyota's just in time total quality control programme. And in 1984, when Toyota had acquired about 25% of the US car market, General Motors benchmarked Toyota to look for the secrets of its success. They mightn't have been humming words like "what goes around, comes around", but other people certainly were!

The scope for benchmarking urban railways (that's the project right now) and trying to be all imaginative in finding best practices in other industries to adopt is severely limited. Radar charts have been used to compare the European and American metros, using the indices of cost, reliability, service quality, safety, asset utilisation and efficiency. The Ulm meeting is all about comparing these charts, patriotically printed in red, blue and white, to show the strengths of all criteria. If only I could just casually stroll in tomorrow with metrics of how moles burrow through earth and use at as the start of a continuous improvement initiative. Or how observations of pinball machine strategies could help this urban railway problem. If only ...

  posted by Dovya R @ 8:44 PM : 

Monday, February 18, 2002  
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