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'd got out of Bombay just in time. The taxi drivers were threatening to go on strike, I'd eaten nothing but rice and yoghurt for five days (normally very nice, but my stomach, traumatised by the monsoon rains, the intermittent drainage failures and the contrast between the air conditioning inside and the warm humidity outside, couldn't keep anything else down). Besides, I wanted to see people of the opposite sex at the gym again. I know that burning off calories should be sufficient motive, but it does help to see some attractive masculine eye candy occasionally.

Also, Julio was being distracting. I needed to concentrate on mission statements, with two parallel deadlines looming far too close for comfort; he'd lost a girlfriend. Again. He didn't understand why, and he was hurting, wanting sympathy. Regardless of the airport traffic all carefully not looking at him, he was slumped in a heap, tears streaming down his face, mindlessly creasing the embroidered silk sari he'd bought and - unfortunately - occasionally touching the battery powered soft toy cobra, which burst into a snake charming roar at the most inconvenient moments. Horace and I had ordered Earl Grey for him to drink, but that couldn't be expected to mend a broken heart by itself. Personally, I had a latte with tiramisu syrup, knowing that soothing a wounded Latino is a long and laborious process.

For the thousandth time, he asked just why he'd chosen to be a quality consultant. It is a well paid job, true, and it does provide a wide range of experience (which translates as: you don't know what's going to happen next). But, against that, you lose your freedom, your social life has to be so flexible that it could happen in Dresden or Katmandu, your family will have to get used to seeing more of your laundry than of you and if you don't like airports, then don't become a consultant.

Juran defines a consultant as being 40ish, male, with 15-20 years' experience. His idea is that this guy starts preparing for consultancy well in advance - up to 5 years in advance - and networks to the hilt, creating a high profile public image. I'm not sure I agree with this, totally. Yes, a consultant has to be objective, thick-skinned and financially stable (because there might be 6 months between jobs, especially at the beginning). But I think that it's more important to be ingenious and imaginative, able to think out of the box. The very fact that a consultant has been hired means that the company is admitting to some degree of defeat. The company has found something which either it can't deal with or does not have sufficient resources for. So a consultant has to come in and deal with people who are quite ready to be un-cooperative and who are - at best - thoughtless. After all, who wants to show this new hotshot where the toilets are? Or the canteen?

Getting back to basics, the first thing is to define just what a quality consultant is supposed to be and what he - or she - is supposed to do. Juran would say that it's a person who gives professional expert advice. I'd be more humble and suggest that it's more likely to be a person who actually completes documentation, flowcharts processes, implements cost saving changes and efficiencies, trains the people who will be doing the work after the consultant has moved on and - most important of all - is a member of the re-engineering team.

Juran and I would agree on the remuneration rate: as a rough rule of thumb, three times the salary of an equivalent employee. Remember, consultants don't get holiday pay, pensions, sick pay, insurance or any of the boring benefits which get taken for granted until you don't have them. Consultants don't have regular jobs, though they do tend to cherish repeat clients. Juran, who has the security of fame and a couple of good selling books, can suggest that a consultant can give a preliminary survey and advice at no charge and he goes on and on about how the potential consultant and the family must come to a meeting of minds (he seems to mean that the family has to do what it is told). Then Juran gives a few tips on how to suss out a good consultant - Juran would have made a good wartime interrogator, I think. If he gave me the works, I think I'd decline the job. But then, I'm not a Juranic quality consultant. For a start, I call myself a quality researcher. I use three main techniques of experience: the memories of successfully finding books which people hadn't realised they wanted to buy; the ordered hierarchy of the Civil Service, where things were just so; and the quality knowledge of increasing efficiency while decreasing costs. Horace started life as a lawyer, and found he preferred benchmarking; Julio got into teaching quality when he was doing his National Service, and found he liked the clarity of the lifestyle. None of us really had a big plan on how we'd all become consultants before middle-age. Somehow, the culture - and the jobs - crept up on us, though, I guess, we already had the benefit of being soaked in continuous improvement environments.

Actually, I find that the research is the most important thing in finding a new client. The first a new or potential client may hear of me is the covering letter, but I will have investigated his company so thoroughly already that I'll know what's in the company newsletters and what brand of tea is served in the canteen. What I tend to do is put down clearly who I am, what I'd like to do, what the possible effects could be, what will be involved and what the timescale for the initial project is likely to be. That thousand words will be my open sesame - at least I hope it will be. Juran doesn't quote his failure rate, but I reckon on getting one out of every three jobs I bid for. Which all explains why if a consultant works (that should be in inverted commas, I think) for a hundred days a year, he's doing well. Because the other two hundred and fifty five or six will be spent in paperwork, preparing reports or analysing them and working out what went wrong.

I can feel this entry coming to an unsightly end. That's ok, because that's just typical of a quality consultant's life: loose threads all over the place. So you didn't get that job: tough, just move on to something else, but keep the records just in case they change their mind at a future date. It's great to have friends to discuss cases with - and Julio, Horace and Dietrich help a lot - just so long as the potential consultant realises that friends can be competitors too. I've taken clients Julio had taken for granted; he's poached some of mine. But we're still sitting together, and I'm still giving him the support he needs right now. I'll keep the sari, I think: it's very attractive. But the soft toy cobra: that's the sort of thing which was made to be abandoned in airport coffee shops as the owner comes to his senses and realises what a hideous sounvenir it is. I'll just give the cobra a gentle kick, and let it stay under the table, awaiting some other unsuspecting mug.

  posted by Dovya R @ 11:05 PM : 

Monday, July 29, 2002  

So I have to leave everything at home which can be mistaken for weapons if I want to fly. The official list includes corkscrews, cricket bats, kubatons, numchucks, pool cues, portable power drills (oh yes, I take them everywhere), religious knives (lucky I'm not a Sikh), toy transformers, robots or toy weapons. Knitting needles are a grey area. I suppose the needle with knitting on it can go, but not the one without. I'm unsure whether to stop in the middle of a row, or just to co-operate with increasing paranoid security guards at the airports. Oh yes, and I mustn't recite the mantra: a weapon is a device to change the enemy's mind. Not even under my breath.

Yeah, airport security is a serious matter and I certainly don't want bits of me to rain down on some unsuspecting bit of a foreign country. But it's not as cut and dried as it appears. The problem is that the population of non-terrorists is (I'm being optimistic here) so much larger than the population of terrorists that using face recognition can lead to long, frustrating and, possibly unnecessary, delays. Just say that the face recognition software is 99.9% accurate. And, for the sake of argument, assume that one in ten million flyers is a terrorist. That means that the software will generate 1000 false alarms for every 1 real alarm.

OK, let's move to plan B: suspicious looking things in people's luggage. There was once a chap called Neil Godfrey, who wanted to fly from Philadelphia to Phoenix to see his parents and go to Disneyland. Going to Disneyland is not what I'd like to do, still. He was searched randomly: no particular reason, just picked out of the crowd to show impartiality in looking at passengers. The security guards freaked. He'd taken a book to read on the journey, called "Hayduke Lives"" by Edward Abbey (not a book I've ever heard of, by the way). On the cover is an illustration of a man's hand, holding several sticks of dynamite. Worse, the plot concerns a radical environmentalist who blows up tractors and sabotages projects which he believes are destroying the beautiful American landscape.

So Neil Godfrey wasn't allowed to fly. He went back to his Philadelphia flat and phoned his mother.

Attempt #2 was a few days later. His mother had sorted out an alternative flight. He didn't take that book again. Unfortunately, he couldn't manage a flight without reading, and when he was recognised, scrutinised, searched and the book confiscated, he was banned from flying with that particular airline. The book, by the way, was "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban".

You want another example? Perhaps this one is more understandable. It's about Professor Steven Mann, a self described cyborg. He wanted to get out of St Johns, Newfoundland, but the security guards didn't care much for his computerised glasses, headgear and electronic bodysuit (neither would I, frankly ...). So he had such an extensive search he missed his flight and couldn't get another for two days. Still, he did manage to fly away.

Of course, some people can't go through the electronic scanners. This happened to General Joe Foss, a former Governor of South Dakota, who's got a heart monitor. He was on his way to give a speech to a US West Point Miliary Academy class and when he was patted down, the security guards had kittens. He had a star shaped thing in his pocket - obviously a lethal weapon. The security guards kept handing it round, trying to work out what it was - not surprising, you don't see a Congressional Medal of Honor every day. Then they found a key chain made from a dummy bullet, drilled through with a hole and a small knife/file with a Medal of Honor insignia. Obviously, this man was dangerous! He had a 45 minute search, his boots were removed, his tie and belt were removed three times. "I wasn't upset for me" General Foss said later "I was upset for the Medal of Honor ... it represents all of the guys who lost their lives - the guys who never came back. Everyone who put their lives on the line for their country. You're supposed to know what the Medal of Honor is".

Actually, he was lucky. He got his flight, though I don't know what the other passengers, who had to wait for all this time, said.

So where does a reasonable standard of protection leave off and lunacy begin? One good thing about all this is that there has been a spotlight put on security screeners. In 2001, the normal pay rate for people monitoring metal detectors was $5.60 an hour. Of course, they were subject to background character checks: except that Dallas Airport, which had 15,000 employees with access to secure areas, had only fingerprinted and checked the criminal history of 75% and there are - as a weary screener told me - over 200 forms of state government issued identity cards. By April 2002, the rate had gone up to $12 an hour, still not what I'd like to work for, but a definite improvement, and 12,000 more screeners had been hired. Also the screening period had doubled from 10 days in 2001 to 21 days to allow more thorough checks.

I don't know the answer. I need to get to and from places quickly and safely. I don't particularly like being stuck in airports and I resent the implication that should I read something unorthodox, the extrapolation should be made about my character (what about the obese fiftyish wannabe heroes who read paperbacks about World War II? Isn't that highly suspicious reading matter?) Of course, I've taken the more extreme examples, which get discussed on the media. But just because something hits the papers, doesn't make it right - or wrong or (a cynical voice in my head says) true. Like I said, I don't know the answer to this problem. And I don't think anyone else does, either.

  posted by Dovya R @ 5:30 PM : 

Thursday, July 25, 2002  
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