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 @ 10:30 PM : discuss

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 @ 9:24 PM : discuss

Monday, April 22, 2002  
Powered By Blogger TM