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.

I was ok at maths at primary school - not too good, not too bad, just ok. At least, so my mother used to say, she said I was about the same level in all my subjects, which could have been parental bias, as I was actually very good in English. Still, I didn't realise then, not like now, that the truth is infinitely flexible - which could be one reason why I like working with statistics. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I was eleven, I had an exam to take at school. I didn't take it all that seriously, as I'm one of those people who isn't phased by exams, or by interviews, for that matter. I didn't even understand the implications at the time, but the result was that after I left my local, neighbourhood, primary school, I found myself going to a secondary, single sex school on the other side of the big city.I remember my first day there. The journey involved three bus rides, which I didn't mind too much, followed by a hurried sprint up a fairly sharp hill. I'd aimed to arrive on time, not knowing any better, but it took about ten minutes to get through the school grounds and then another ten to find the classroom, by which time all the desks were bagged. Everyone had gone off to the daily assembly, to worship God, or the headmistress, and I was left alone in the deserted classroom, waiting for my desk, which came up from stores, was dusty, an older model from everyone else's, ugly, revolting, unwanted. And that's not even describing my chair. The head mistress of the time, Miss L-W, was very experienced in dealing with (manipulating?) vulnerable girls. She would toss her silver hair regally and make some apt foreign quote (Greek? Latin? Gibberish?). She left the term I started, and was replaced by a big bosomed administrator, whose first act was to abolish our cherished Friday afternoons off, so that we could study more science. This, predictably, had the effect of infecting a generation of school girls with a pathological hatred of science.

The first lesson on the first day was maths. I'd just got comfortable when the teacher walked in and everyone stood up. I didn't understand. Had they all simultaneously got ants in their pants? Even then, I could vaguely work out the statistical unlikelihood of that. But, after realising that this was part of the awful routine of my new world, and that there would be no sitting down without permission, I still felt enthusiastic about maths and when the teacher asked for subscriptions to the magazine, Mathematical Pie, I was first to put up my hand - I was keen on cooking, after all. And so, I was landed with getting this magazine for the next two years, which I found totally incomprehensible, and soon learned not to even open.

There were three maths teachers at that school. I don't remember one of them at all. One was married (a rarity in those days), and looked as if she had a life out of school. The third was the one I ended up with. Miss H - I remember her well. She was another of these big bosomed women, slightly drooping, and she was actually quite short and more than a little obese. She wore dowdy dresses, dark, murky colours like olive green or burgundy, with small, busy, floral designs. Her hair was dark and greasy, straight, cut level with her ear lobes, her eyes were the colour of stones, left too long to soak in a polluted pond. She had a wart on, I think, the left side of her nose, and her skin was curiously good, creamy, smooth. Her teeth were good too, very white, I saw a lot of them as she smiled a lot. It was not until years later when I saw that smile again on someone else, and realised that it denoted not pleasure, but intense and tightly controlled fury.

Miss H and I found ourselves, probably equally reluctantly, in a war of nerves. In those days, there was no chance of getting into university without a maths qualification, and it was taken for granted that I would go to university (I was quite brainy, I say modestly). But, to cut a long and distressing story short, after five years of Miss H, there was no way that I could pass my exams. My fear and hatred of maths spilled over into Physics and Chemistry and when I left school, it was as someone who could spout Latin and endless tags from "Hamlet" (having studied it for three years), who could immediately say that the Nile was the longest river in Africa (though that was more through reading Aldous Huxley than actually learning any geography). I crashed with maths, and with the resit, and only passed it several years later when I was just starting university (yes, the regulations had changed then, if you were sufficiently ingenious).

There had been one moment when I thought I might learn something: after perhaps 500 visits from my mother to school, I had been given the chance to move to the married maths teacher's class. Except that if I did that, it meant that someone had to transfer to Miss H's class, and someone had very influential parents. I was away from Miss H for about thirty glorious seconds.

And so began the years of wandering. There was plenty of travelling and lots of seeing more of the seedy underbelly of life than I was really happy with. Through a series of bizarre and what would be totally unbelievable coincidences if they weren't actually true, I found myself in an enginering company. Now, I am a lot of things, but being an engineer is not one of them. I don't think like an engineer - which was, and, to some extent, still is, one of my major strengths. But my mentor at the company put his thinking cap on, and put me into the quality department. My boss at the time found this out about a minute before I did, and we looked at each other and, silently, decided to make the best of it.

And now? As a woman working in a predominantly male environment, my natural reaction to maths would not be appropriate - besides, there are calculators now. Maths and I now have a twisted relationship, by which I fight to remain dominant and keep the maths as a tool to be kept in its proper place which is firmly under my very high, painfully sharp heels. Statistics are slightly more tolerable, it's the analysis which interests me and the struggle to keep some form of neutrality amidst the managerial politics. But thoughts of Miss H still bring me out into a cold sweat. She wasn't the right teacher for me, though I guess she might have had similar thoughts about my suitability as a pupil. That school was the wrong school for me, but my parents, with good intentions, decided that it was. I got screwed there and it took many years to get back onto track. I was invited to a school reunion last month: I sat on the edge of the bed and shuddered silently for five minutes before deciding that the past should be left where it belongs - in the past. Miss H had problems: I had problems. But I've got over most of them. I don't know if she has - and I don't care, either.

  posted by Dovya R @ 9:30 PM : 

Saturday, April 27, 2002  

Horace had merely flown in from LA, no doubt with a few connections, which he grimly didn't mention: I'd flown to New York, then somehow got to Bangor and hedgehopped to Knox County Airport at Owl's Harbor. With names like that, it just had to be Maine. And we'd done all this for a weekend of camping and fishing. To have a meal of lobster, corn on the cob, salad, baked potato followed by ice cream, lying like a lead weight on a full stomach. We'd actually chosen to come to Lincolnville Beach to have this meal, which neither of us would ever had considered in more normal circumstances. But the circumstances weren't normal - we'd deliberately come here to eat Deming's favourite meal, to indulge in his favourite pastimes (the aforesaid camping and fishing, somewhat helped by the Scottish looking scenery) and to swop Deming quotes.

Horace started. "We lived on it" he said, thoughtfully, looking out onto the bay. But I knew that. It referred to an instructorship Deming got at Yale when he was doing his PhD - $1000 a year, to support him, his first wife and his adopted daughter. Of course, Deming was used to working while studying, and it was back in the 1920s. The PhD thesis was "A Possible Explanation on the Packing Effect of Helium" (all about the nuclear packing of helium, if that makes things any clearer) and Deming went from Yale to the US Department of Agriculture, as he was interested in studying nitrogen and its effect on crops. The interest in statistics came much later. Deming's first degree was in electrical engineering, which must have seemed like pushing back the frontiers of technology then (1917-21), followed by an MS at Colorado and the PhD, both in the maths/mathematical physics area.

So, it was my turn. "He always had an uncanny ability to make things difficult", I whispered. Horace knew I was referring to Deming's view of Shewhart. They had met in the summers of 1925 and 1926 when Deming worked at Western Electric, and then Deming had invited Shewhart to give technical lectures, when he (Deming, that is) was still involved with agriculture. Deming spent a great deal of time popularising Shewhart's work until many of Shewhart's own ideas - like the PDCA cycle - were often attributed to Deming. For that matter, some people maintain that most of the material for Deming's 14 Points was borrowed from Juran. Deming's genius was not so much in being an original thinker, as persuading people to try and aim for continuous improvement and to just remember the importance of quality as a competitive tool.

"Him. He is what's wrong with your company" shouted Horace, pointing at me. I giggled. He'd got out of chronological order a bit, but it made sense, especially after mentioning the 14 Points. Deming had, in his typically abrasive style, opened a management consulting session at a particular firm by asking "Do you know what's wrong with your company?" Before anyone could say anything, he'd turned round and pointed at the President, who was sitting there, innocently ready to thank Deming for his valuable contribution to improving his firm's processes. The President's response is not recorded. Just as well ....

"To make it possible for people to work with joy" I retorted, but Horace knew I was referring to the purpose of Deming's 14 Points. There was two sides to Deming's character - the visionary, who couldn't bear workers being blamed for the faults of management, and the relaxed Deming who played drums and timpani in a band at University, who drove a '69 Lincoln Continental, who went cycling in the countryside with his family until he was well into his seventies and who composed a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" (same words, different music).

"There was nothing - not even smoke" murmured Horace, sadly. Yes, Deming had black days. To him, the task of a statistician was to design experiments, examine the data and provide guidance in how to proceed. He did encourage people to use the control charts Shewhart had invented, but only engineers came to his courses, not the managers and so his statistical efforts just evaporated as management enthusiasm moved on to meeting the current (or next) deadline.

Deming is widely acknowledged as introducing statistical control into post-war Japan. Surprisingly, the story is more complex. He'd got involved with Japan initially to advise on sampling for a major census in 1951 (he'd had a major impact on the US 1940 census with sampling) - one of the major aims was to assess the war damage to determine how much new housing was needed. He'd met many eminent Japanese statisticians and economists, during his first visit to Japan in 1947.

Ken-ichi Koyanagi, Managing Director of JUSE, the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers, had invited Deming to give the 1950 lectures, but the driver and motivator behind this invitation was Ichiro Ishikawa (father of Kaoru "fishbone" Ishikawa). Deming, having learned from the lectures he had given in the States to which only engineers had attended, asked for senior managers to come; Ishikawa required and requested the senior managers to attend - and Ishikawa, as a wealthy industrialist in his own right, a president of the JUSE and the first president of Japan's very powerful Federation of Economic Organisation, did not get his invitations refused. It was said that refusing one of his invitations was like refusing one from Don Corleone - and as sensible.

Deming's lectures had two major effects - first in popularising the use of control charts, which had been widespread in pre-war Japan, but the use of which had been isolated in individual factories and also destroyed in the wartime bombing. His second effect, the one intended by Ishikawa, was that managers began to realise that responsibility for change actually lay with them, the managers, and this effect was reinforced by the later lectures of Juran.

But, anyway, it was my turn to give a quote. "No, no, no!" I said, in tones of rising horror. It was, of course, Deming's reactions to the "reasonable" questions Clare Crawford-Mason asked, when she was researching the programme "If Japan can, why can't we?" In Japan, Deming was highly regarded. As he'd given his lectures for free, the money raised by selling reprints had been used to set up the Deming set of prizes and he was also awarded the Second Order Medal of the Sacred Treasure in 1960. That doesn't sound much, but it's the highest award Japan could award to a foreigner.

After that programme was shown on tv, Deming went for relative obscurity to celebrity status overnight. Everyone wanted his advice, and it is amazing that he just maintained his simple lifestyle and two room office in the basement of his house. He kept on working, giving lectures, until he was, I think, 92. And he was modest. "I won't even be remembered" he said once "Well, maybe ... as someone who spent his life trying to keep America from committing suicide".

That's maybe why Horace and I were sitting facing each other in the gathering dusk of the lounge, using our quote game as a way of remembering Deming. We could have made the last quote inspirational - "it is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best" - or we could have remembered how he asked for anyone wishing to give a memorial to donate blood. But, instead, we remembered something he said to his family on the phone during a lecture tour, which was overhead by an attendee, and remembered; "Can you make sure the cat has enough catnip, please?"

Sure, Deming will always be remembered in quality circles. But he should be remembered, too, as a man who loved life and was surrounded by love and laughter. And Horace and I aren't the only people who remember him and follow his philosophy - thank goodness!

References? Yeah, I research the subject thoroughly. If anything I've written makes you want to read a bit more about Deming, then why not have a look at the W Edwards Deming Institute web pages or the Deming Co-operative web pages or W Edwards Deming: The story of a truly remarkable man by Robert B Austenfield, Jr (pdf file).

  posted by Dovya R @ 8:24 PM : 

Monday, April 22, 2002  

Among all those books on how to negotiate internationally, somehow the subject of half a caterpillar gets overlooked. Here's the situation in a nutshell - well, a lettuce leaf. You are in an expensive Milanese restaurant, your hosts are upholding the honour of their country and, incidentally, having a really good meal on someone else's expenses. The portions are huge, even to someone who didn't have to get up at 3am and endure such a bumpy flight that changing at Timbuktoo, Wellington and Dublin would almost have been preferable, followed by hours of negotiation over each paragraph, phrase, word, punctuation point in a sweaty, smoky room. Perhaps this was a subtle form of knockout - would I fall flat on my face before or after eating the entire seabream and forest of side salad? But there was the honour of my country to be taken into consideration, the honour of my firm and the background voice of long gone parents who could barely afford the food and whoalways gave children priority. So I ate it all until the penultimate mouthful. That was the half caterpillar.

So is the proper thing to do:
a) Kick up a fuss in the hope of getting a free lunch at some stage in the far future when you may possibly feel hungry again?
b) Kick up a fuss in the hope of gaining competitive and moral advantage from the fact that your hosts are so barbaric that they take you to a restaurant that serves insects?
c) Kick the caterpillar under the table and make sure you don't tread on it?
d) Look imploringly at the waiter and ask him to take that thing away and give it to the people's dispensary for sick insects?

The decision was taken out of my hands. A far too efficient waiter whisked the plate away, leaving me with a knife, but wresting the fork and thing, wriggling in its death throes, and before I could say, well that's tough luck, folks, I know that vegetarianism is relative, but ... another portion arrived. Bigger, more opulent. The restaurant could only forgive its chef (no doubt being suspended by his toes for such an insult to a foreigner) if I was to eat it. My hosts would never live it down if it was known that they had such poor taste in restaurants. Now, as a woman, I would normally have just batted my eyelids and said how li'l ol' me couldn't manage something so big, could they just put it in a doggie bag or whatever the Italian equivalent is. But as a team member, a tough superhuman negotiator and a member of the (justly) feared quality inquisition, my options were limited. Either I could lose face or I could gain weight.

The only good thing was that we could have a long, leisurely series of espressos afterwards and talk about anything but work. So we talked about catchphrases, instead, and what happens when you outlive them. If the original word which caught the world's imagination was re-engineering, then the answer is simple. You take your own advice, accept that what was once unusual is now a fundamental concept of business and move on.

Hammer and Champy get the credit for being the big players back in the 1990s. Some people mention Davenport and Short, personally, I don't. There were aggressive phrases like "don't automate, obliterate" or "question the status quo, now", which don't give any indication that the technical definition of business process re-engineering, at least according to Hammer and Champy in 1993, is "a fundamental rethink and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic imporvements in critical conteporary measures of performance, such as cost, quality, service and speed". Put more informally (more understandably?), it's wiping the slate clean and starting again, using modern technology and lateral thinking.

The Condor model, designed by a consortium of European construction companies, gives a model for business process re-engineering, which is remarkably similar to Shewhart's PDCA cycle of continuous improvement. From the vision cames an understanding of existing processes, the identification of processes to be redesigned, the implementation and evaluation of new processes, and, of course, the magic words of ongoing continuous improvement. It all sounds very good on paper, the benefits are sound (the usual increased competitive advantage, improved profitability through more efficient processes and so on) ... so why do 70% of businesses trying this technique fail with it?

Hammer could - and does - say that there are many improper uses of the concept. Champy would - and does - say that the sectors most in need of the concept are banks, which are afraid of change and don't know how to handle it. Another problem - sorry, I should have said "challenge" - is that managers today are under permanent and continuous pressure to present short term results, yet the very nature of business process re-engineering (because it inherently involves changing the corporate culture) is long term.

"It's all very well being academic about these things," Julio interjected, as he got up to get his 70th (surely not, perhaps it only seemed like that) espresso. He turned, his face pleading: "Give me examples, hard evidence!" (and he rolled the "r" of hard so much, if it had been a toffee, it would have rolled over and begged for mercy).

Well, Easyjet are a good example. Julio objected, on the grounds that they were at the top of their market, what need was there to re-engineer? Everyone else pointed out, a little sourly, that if IBM had re-engineered when they were at the top of their market, they might have stayed there. We didn't need to remind ourselves about Stelios Haji-Ioannou founding Easyjet on October 18, 1995 (Julio's birthday - that man gets into all the conversations going), or that Easyjet now operates 28 European routes. We were (unfairly) surprised that he had a BSc in economics and a MSc in shipping, trade and finance, and we were shocked rigid with envy that his load factor in October 2001 was 83.16% which is excellent by any standards. Easyjet had two motives for re-engineering: to look for ways to improve their core processes and to identify which processes should be outsourced. Sure, they brought in consultants, but they used the combination of specialists and staff to brainstorm after watching videos of the process of the day (or hour, or minute). It was a collaborative effort, cross functional, cross divisional and driven by a desperate and charismatic leader. With competitors like Buzz, Go and British Midland, Easyjet has to improve its turnaround time as much as possible and reduce its overheads (hence the paperless ticket system, the flight attendants who clean up the plane, the lack of booking seats). The main problem with the system is that by breaking the traditional link between travel agent and airline (and, also, losing the commission to be paid to the travel agents, which is a good thing, of course), Easyjet lost the channel of information on customers - and because they were competing with practically every other airline on cost grounds (if nothing else), they had no one to benchmark with. Julio suggested that Haj-Ioannou's well-publicised habit of flying on his own planes and asking other passengers for ideas of improvement may be one form of research. It's true: I had a friend of a friend of a friend of an ex of a friend of another ex who sat next to him once - or said she did - certainly, it's true that Easyjet do go in for extensive customer research.

Julio, who was feeling a little anti-British, suggested that British Airways could benefit from a touch of re-engineering. He was, once more, squashed, though the British Airways style of re-engineering has always put me off flying them. "Pah" protested a rather rumpled Julio, " What about your TSB, announcing a cultural change to encourage an achievement oriented culture, then making 5000 staff redundant?"

Ignoring him, we went back to discussing British Airways. Someone with a calculator reckoned that in 1981, British Airways were losing 200 a minute. The kindest thing anyone could say about it was that it was an old fleet and the journeys were uncomfortable. Yet by 1996, following a long period of business process re-engineering which re-designed employee attitudes and re-prioritised customer satisfaction, it was the world's most profitable carrier. We knew about Colin Marshall's "Putting People First" programme and the amount of his own personal sweat and guts he'd put into it. But our own feelings were that his re-engineering would have been better described as indoctination and where did the lateral thinking of the definition come in, anyway? Taking a formal quote, Julio, for once aligned with the feeling of the group, stated "The relatively high incidence of conflict throughout the period fuels doubts about a transformation in the culture of the company towards the mutual commitment model". And, anyway, it's all very well to quote 1996 propoganda, but what about the attempted strike in 1997 when BA staff, informed, by telephone at their home, that they had a duty to co-operate with their employer, suddenly had a mass illness (2000 people called in sick - 70% of flights from Heathrow were cancelled). Julio, who had had a British Airways girlfriend at that time, perked up and mentioned some of the things which had been suggested as ways of improving employees' morale - superglueing down the toilet seat, or putting eye drops in one obnoxious captain's salad. He said that he'd heard someone had put duvet feathers in an airplane engine. In 2000, British Airways announced losses of 224 million on its main business. The tailfin artwork introduced in 1997 to indicate that British Airways was an international airline, bombed, if that was the right word. If British Airways has any sense, it should be in the middle of another form of re-engineering right now, and not one which targets people's emotions. In the meantime, though, we decided to continue flying Easyjet ....

By this time, the restaurant was practically empty, the waiters were getting elusive and restless, and our stomachs were thinking that just a tiny snack might not be such a bad idea after all. Besides, we had to sign the contracts before we could go home and, speaking for myself, my stomach wanted to get back to plain Scottish food again.

  posted by Dovya R @ 7:54 PM : 

Monday, April 15, 2002  
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