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.

Horace and I were feeling maudlin: we'd met in London and were suffering from our typical overdoses: him of sushi, me of sake. We weren't tacky enough to cling to each other and sing "will you still need me ... when I'm 64", but we were talking about age and what on earth we'd do when we were - well - a bit older. We weren't quite sure how we thought of people who die of rodeo accidents at 65. Are they idiots for getting on a horse at all, or are they heroes for keeping going and not degenerating into slobbering idiots who watch the world go by? I guess the only idiotic thing about Baldrige is that he died in a rodeo accident: after all, he'd had plenty of experience from boyhood onwards (that's what comes of having been born in Omaha).

"Too many accountants, lawyers and marketing people" pronounced Horace, quoting Baldrige, and forgetting, in his nostalgia, that he was one of the above "What we need are some manufacturers and engineers calling the shots if America is to compete effectively in world markets". That's the whole thrust of the Baldrige Award: competitive advantage for America. Or, at least, that's how it started out, it's getting a little diluted now.

Baldrige had worked his way up a Connecticut iron company - I don't know which one - starting as iron hand, culminating in a different sort of iron hand, as president of the corporation. I don't mean to imply that he started right at the bottom of the heap, since he'd been an infantry captain in WWII and he'd also managed to get a bachelor's degree from Yale in 1944, which in itself either means that my sources are a bit confused, or he was an expert, even then, at multitasking. When he took over Scovill, Inc, in 1962, it was just another brass mill, perhaps on the downward slope, but weren't most brass mills at that time? He diversified the products and by the time he went into politics in 1980, it was a desirable and successful firm.

My concern about the Baldrige Award is that, although it encourages the sharing of best practice and continuous improvement, the aim is simply increased competitive advantage. When Eastman Chemical Company won, Ernest Devonport, then chairman, said "We did it [go for the Baldrige Award] to win customers ... and to remain competitive in a world marketplace". Now, my preference is more for EFQM - ok, it's European based, as am I, but it's a more moral award, it considers how a firm can help the environment and its own people. The Baldrige Award just goes for the jugular: sure, one of its criteria is the human resource focus, how the organisation enables its workforce to develop its full potential and how the workforce is aligned with the organisation's objectives, but it just seems that employees, in the Baldrige universe, are resources to be utilised purely for the good of the company, whereas with EFQM, there is at least the illusion that people are people with feelings and free will and desires to do more than increase the corporate profit.

However, having said that, Horace suggested that the Baldrige Award may be getting a bit touchy-feely as well, and not because people consistently mis-spell it as "Baldridge". Since inception in 1987, there has always been a category for small businesses, and in 1999 sections were introduced for health care and education. in 2001, for example, one of the winners was the Chugach School District. No, I hadn't heard of Chugach either. It's 22,000 square miles worth of Alaskan wilderness, with 214 students. When superintendent Richard DeLorenzo arrived in 1994, he must have despaired: the average student (we're talking mean average here, not that it matters) was about 3 years behind grade level in reading, unemployment in the area was - and still is - 50%+. I have absolutely no idea why DeLorenzo decided to apply Baldrige principles to this district. He simply says he talked to the parents, local businesses and students (as customers) to identify what they wanted, and then redesigned the system to achieve the desired results. If people don't pass the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam until 21, ok. If they pass at 14, that's ok too. Sounds simple. Mind, providing a laptop to every student may have helped as well (another source notes that students have to get midway to graduation to get the wireless laptop - perhaps that makes more sense as a form of motivation).

Now, even though it's the first restaurant (I think) to win the Baldrige Award in any category, Pal's Sudden Service is a more easily understood winner. Horace had eaten at one of the branches in Tennessee, and raved for several minutes about the chipped ham, the breakfast biscuits with country ham, and the gravy. He then looked, disparagingly, at his last maki sushi and stabbed a chopstick right into its core, to convey it all the quicker from plate to mouth. Pal's is still privately owned, and everything (and I mean everything) has a process attached to it. More, every process is designed to impect on and improve customer satisfaction. It's cheap, it's cheerful and it's reliable (says Horace). What I liked about Pal's is that every owner or operator spends part of the day on what I'd call "walking the talk". They call it "marketing by wandering around". Perhaps it's more focused, it involves talking to people on what they think of the store and any ways things can be improved. They don't just wander round the parking lot, but actually go door to door in areas up to 3 miles away from their home base. Actually, that sounds a bit weird to me. It's bad enough answering the door to find a Jehovah's Witness wanting to save you, but, frankly, I can't really imagine a Macdonald's or Burger King employee wanting to know what I thought of the meal. (Side note: have just tried out the idea on flatmate who says initially he would be apprehensive, then might either be pleased or deliberately difficult, just to annoy. Well, I guess using a sample of two doesn't express British opinion accurately, but even so ...).

When the Award started in 1987, the early winners were the usual suspects - Motorola, Solectron, AT&T, Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Texas Instruments, Xerox. But now, with costs from as little as $300, depending on the size and philosophy of the company, small businesses are seeing the benefits of having expert assessment which includes a report of their strengths and areas for improvement. Although the initial aim was simply to go for patriotic competitiveness, I think that the Baldrige influence is spreading more into becoming embedded into normal corporate culture and, while Baldrige recipients must have US headquarters, the influence can still disseminate downwards and sideways into subsidiary and partner companies.

Of course, Horace and I still haven't made up our minds about Baldrige and the rodeo. The one thing we are agree on, though, is that we'd rather be on the horse than watching it all on tv as we sit in our bathchairs with tartan rugs. When we go, it's going to be in a blaze of glory - that is, if we have any choice about it at all.

  posted by Dovya R @ 8:19 PM : 

Tuesday, March 26, 2002  

Interesting talk on outsourcing, defined as the transfer of some operational responsibilities of either business processes or infrastructure management to external agencies. The focus of the talk was on IT outsourcing, but when you come to think of it, it applies to a whole range of subjects - finance, HR (growl!), legal, accounting, catering (double growl), cleaning, training, security, you name it. I guess that any part of non-core business can be outsourced.

If you're the founder of an IT outsourcing business, you are rather inclined to point out the advantages: there's no need for the supplier to worry about recruitment, training or even keeping people on the forefront of technology; nor do you need to coddle your IT people who may get bored with routine work or insulted at having to do routine work instead of exercising their specialist skills. A selling point to managers is that in-house IT people may not work to their full potential and, besides, when outsourcing, you are in control of costs, and that leads to a stable and predictable (if not cheap) budget.

On the other hand, I'd not like to be a manager in the Bank of Scotland who outsourced to IBM - about a thousand people were directly affected. Or, worse, a manager at some time in the future at the City of Edinburgh, which has outsourced to British Telecom with a ten year contract. Shin-Etsu had quite a few cultural hiccups outsourcing to Wisdom IT and only three client employees were involved.

More smooth persuasion: outsourcing, after all, doesn't affect core business, though any identified bottlenecks could, perhaps, be outsourced. The client has control - not in a legally binding way if there was a breach of security, perhaps - but in that the supplier needs the supplier's business, just as the supplier needs the ability not to worry about non-core business. There is mutual trust in an ideal situation: but is the outsourcer a neutral and efficient supplier or just another supplier not committed to the company culture? It's a risk control situation balanced against efficiency and while the speaker is all for it (in the hope that the audience may supply future business, perhaps), the audience are less convinced.

  posted by Dovya R @ 7:27 AM : 

Wednesday, March 20, 2002  

People don't normally die because of poorly designed graphs. They don't normally die, either, because a US Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of asbestos in certain paint products. Deaths do sometimes happen because the media and pressure groups run off in unusual directions (normally ones which draw attention to themselves and sell newspapers), but no one could imagine that the decision to cease manufacture of "innocuous" products like hair dryers could have any dramatic effect at all.

But people did die, in 1986 - in the space shuttle, Challenger.

Anyone who is 20 or over will remember the pictures. It was January 28, 11.38. The shuttle flight had been postponed five times (three times because of the weather, once because of difficulties with a closing fixture and once because of a failure in the launch processing system). That day was the last one which could extract maximum PR influence - President Reagan's "State of the Nation" address was scheduled, the "Teacher in Space" material was ready to be rolled out to all US schools and Halley's Comet, which would provide experimental source material, was rapidly vanishing into the distance, and would soon be too far away to provide any source material at all.

The crew could almost have been designed to fit every positive role model: apart from the teacher, there was the second woman in space, the second African-American in space, the fun loving friend/caring husband, the Hawaiian, the sailor and the experienced officer, who had flown more than 45 different types of aircraft.

So the eyes of the world were upon this flight of the only reusable spacecraft - the launch was televised live. Not only was there a civilian on board, but the mission objectives included observations of the tail of Halley's Comet, deployment of a Tracking Data Relay Satellite and the flying of a Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN-203, for anyone who is into acronyms).

It was a cold, freezing morning - temperature 31 degrees Fahrenheit. The launch was perfect. There was a strong puff of smoke just after lift off which was rather worrying, though. Then Challenger encountered the first of several high-altitude wind shear conditions, but these were immediately sensed and countered by the guidance, navigation and control systems on board.

The very small flame which appeared on the right Solid Rocket Booster was only detected on image enhanced film. That was 58.78 seconds into the flight. This flame increased in size and changed both shape and colour at 64.66 seconds (this showed that it was mixing with the leaking hydrogen from the external tank).

Enough of the second by second commentary. The Challenger exploded at 73.13 seconds while travelling at Mach 1.92 at an altitude of 46,000 feet. The last recorded transmission was at 73.62 seconds and then Challenger debris fell into the ocean as both the Solid Rocket Boosters flew in different directions. The parachutes from them were observed floating down: initially they were thought to be escaping astronauts. However, Challenger had no escape facility, as it was considered to be a safe craft. (It was later found that a few of the crew members had activated their emergency air and locator devices, but, really, I don't think there was much time for them to realise what was happening).

It wasn't exactly the image NASA wanted to project and a Commission of Enquiry was immediately set up to establish the accident cause, headed by former Secretary of State, William P Rogers, and including a team from NASA. Physicist Richard Feynmann (my hero) was invited to participate. The problem with Feynmann was that he was under the impression that he was needed to discover the truth of the accident - he already had intense curiosity, almost to the point of obsession, and was truly independent, being too academically powerful and too much internationally recognised for his findings to be disregarded or side-lined. Feynmann looked for a technological reason for the failure. He postulated that the rubber used to seal the Solid Rocket Booster joints using O rings failed to expand sufficiently when the temperature was at or below 32 degree Fahrenheit.

Of course, it's not enough to glibly say that the O rings were to blame. You have to go into more details and describe the Tang and Clevis joints. I'm not going to do that, because there are many other references which can show the Solid Rocket Boosters more clearly than I can ... and when you say things like "the Tang joint was connected to the Clevis joint and the Clevis joint was connected to the ..." it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke and there have been more than enough bad jokes about Challenger as it is. It's also a gross simplification, because the straight line Tang "the bottom" would slide down the sides of the U-shaped Clevis "the top" ... I recommend the excellent Space Shuttle Challenger web page designed and written by Davinder S Mahal.

OK, back to technicalities. The O rings seal a necessary gap on the inside of the Tang and Clevis. During launch, the O ring should move to seal the delta gap opening. The main technological cause of the explosion was the failure of the right Solid Rocket Booster aft joint sealing.

This is where the statistics comes in (and about time, too!). On the launch day, the external temperature was 31 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature of the right Solid Rocket Booster was 28 degrees Fahrenheit, plus or minus 5 degrees. Now, O rings do not seal properly in low temperatures - they get stiff and don't work as fast as they should. This problem was well documented, but when Morton Thiokol, the manufacturers, conveyed the information to NASA, somehow NASA interpreted what they wanted to hear. I'm sympathetic: it's easy to get suffocated with statistics. But the NASA management made two basic mistakes:

  • As far as statistics is concerned, the NASA attitude was that because there was no data showing that the O rings will work at low temperatures, that meant that there was no data showing that the O rings would fail at low temperature.

  • The NASA management specifically rejected the Morton Thiokol advice and excluded the Morton Thiokol engineers from the final decision making process with reference to the launch. The kindest interpretation of this is that the NASA managers did not understand the technicalities of the Morton Thiokol engineers.

So, basically, as far as NASA was concerned, there was no correlation between low temperature and O ring failure rate. And that was true, using the data they used. But they didn't use the whole data - some commentators suggest they only used data based on two launches and therefore disregarded 92% of the data. The NASA attitude seemed to be that each time nothing went wrong meant that the risk was going down and, anyway, the O ring problem was an acceptable flight risk. (NASA just couldn't afford a costly redesign and the bad PR from yet more delays). If NASA had used the whole data, they would have seen a negative correlation (and, in passing, this is what started me on looking at the Challenger disaster in the first place).

A space shuttle is an enormously complicated beast. Getting back to the Solid Rocket Boosters again, the Tang and Clevis joints were filled with putty to prevent the ferociously hot gases passing through the booster joint and burning the O rings. This has the feel of an obsolescence problem ... basically, the putty used for the first nine (successful) shuttle missions was manufactured by Fuller O'Brien and (gasp of horror) contained asbestos. Fuller O'Brien stopped manufacturing this after the 1977 Consumer Products Safety Commission ban - bluntly, they were scared of possible litigation and weren't too keen on the bad reputation which was gradually enveloping every asbestos-bearing product in the States.

The alternative putty selected by NASA designers was manufactured by Randolph Products. NASA engineers had to use some form of putty, as they had run out of the Fuller O'Brien stuff. Result: explosion of the two Titan rockets it was used for. (As a side note, it could be mentioned that this putty also contained asbestos). But, more seriously, this putty was not providing an adequate thermal barrier 100% of the time. To take a more tangible approach, the Fuller O'Brien putty has been compared to the La Brea tar pits. Once you get it on your hands, you'll have immense difficulty getting it off - it's tenacious and very sticky, even at low temperatures. The Randolph putty isn't - it's stiff to touch. At low temperatures, it is hard and does not cling. The use of the Randolph putty was certainly a contributory factor to the Challenger explosion.

NASA estimated in 1977 that the shuttle failure rate would be 1 in 10,000 flights. Feynmann estimated in 1986 that the failure rate was more like 1 in 100 flights. It's possible that NASA was deliberately optimistic with operational estimates; in addition, the proposed commercialisation of space was government top priority. In the 1980s, though, NASA was facing a shrinking budget and was desperate for a win. This may explain - but should not excuse - their management attitude.

The scenario, I guess, was an inevitable as a Greek tragedy. The Morton Thiokol engineers had an open discussion approach, by which the managers gathered all relevant information before coming to an informed decision which was: don't launch. Larry Mulloy, top manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center, had a closed management style. That is, he stated his opinion at the onset, did not encourage member participation, did not encourage divergent opinions and did not emphasise the importance of a wise decision. His attitude was: launch. When faced with a conference call from Morton Thiokol engineers suggested that the launch shouldn't happen, his reaction was strong, aggressive and unequivocal: "My God, Thiokol, when do you want us to launch? Next April?"

Mulloy carried the day. He insisted on the launch. He should be carrying the ghosts of the seven crew members on his shoulders for the rest of his life.

However ... since the accident, NASA has pushed through many improvements. Astronauts now have individual parachutes and their own oxygen supply. Hatches can be opened from the inside. The crew can bail out in less than a minute. So everything is fine if a similar accident happens. My questions would be:

  • What is the probability of such a set of circumstances happening again?

  • Has NASA learned anything in the intervening years about good leadership and communication?

A simple "don't launch in cold weather" if the design hasn't changed would be a major factor in stopping this particular accident happening again. Don't know about other types of accident, though. I have no chance of being an astronaut but, somehow, it's dropped off the list of my favourite careers to be.

  posted by Dovya R @ 6:30 PM : 

Friday, March 08, 2002  
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