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.

"Where the feck is Mount Oliphant?" asked Horace, muttering a little, obviously stressed. We looked up, shocked to the core at Horace's (very unusual) attempt at swearing and even more unusual evidence that he did, after all, pay attention to the "Father Ted" TV episodes which Dietrich and I found so funny and which Horace would normally feign to ignore.

It was Julio, naturally, who recovered first. "Three miles from Ayr, on the estate of Doonholm," he said and then, as the penny dropped (for him, but not for us) "no, you canna" (Julio's attempt at a Scottish accent) "it's afta the twenty fifth!"

So there was this intermission, while Julio explained that obviously Horace had been asked to give the Immortal Memory to Robert Burns, even though every true Scotsman and even wannabee American Scots derived people knew that all this was done on the 25th of January. Horace, defensive, knowing he was in the wrong for no good reason of his, admitted that Leila (his boss, who looked harmless, but wasn't) wanted to give the reply of the Lassies, but she'd been away on business for the last few weeks. We enquired where she had been, and Horace, beginning to sweat a little, finally admitted that she'd been in Stornoway where, perhaps, she'd been able to observe the technique of how the lassies replied at first hand.

Leila was one of those people who appeared to have effortless perfection. We were beginning to see just how it was done, also how she had a few less desirable qualities, and the power to enforce them.

Mount Oliphant was where Robert Burns first fell in love. It was otherwise a very miserable place - his brother, Gilbert, who was very prone to long sentences, said that "I doubt not, but the hard labour and sorrow of this period of his life, was in great measure the cause of the depression of spirit with which Robert was so often afflicted through his whole life afterwards". The girl was Nellie Kilpatrick, daughter, I think, of the local blacksmith, the first song was "O, once I loved a bonnie lass", Burns was about fifteen years of age. And that's the last time I intend to mention this obscure place, even though Horace was waving about a map of Scotland, trying to identify all the places Robert Burns visited, in his attempt to show Burns' contribution to quality.

Dietrich gave Horace a glass of (medium good) whisky, I put the map away, Julio riffled through his case of CDs and produced some authentic fiddle music, and the following is the result (though I should say that Leila's speech, which we subsequently had to listen to, was five times as long and far too serious). But no one dared to tell her that.

It's a bit ironic that in a speech designed to outline the greatness of Robert Burns and his relevance as a poet today, with very particular relevance to quality, that I (this is Horace speaking) should disregard the conventions of this type of speech and start by quoting two other people. Hugh McDiarmid is the first. He had a certain reputation, not perhaps in the same areas as Robert Burns, but exclaimed bitterly "Mair nonsense has been uttered in the name of Robert Burns than ony's, barrin' liberty and Christ". The second quotation, I'm sorry to say, is quite apposite to quality - Mark Twain advises sagely that you should "Get your facts first and then you can distort them as you like".

The kneejerk reaction when suggesting any quality initiative so often is "Does the top management support it?" However, I think that, really, there needs to be some passion involved, some enthusiasm to get the initiative started. There may be an external driver, such as customer pressure or, in Burns' case, romance (he wrote "I never had the thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in love").

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think that Burns had the soul of a quality man. He'd gained experience in many aspects of both the manufacturing and service industries of his day, as farmer, linen weaver, customs officer, freemason, poet and, perhaps not so relevant, Founder Member of the Tarbolton Bachelor's Club. Despite his reputation as a ladies' man (fifteen children, six illegitimate, though two sets of twins were born before his marriage and one son after his death), Burns was very clear in his own mind that physical attraction should never be sufficient. In "Handsome Nell", he wrote:

"A bonnie lass, I will confess
Is pleasant to the e'e
But without some better qualities
She's no the lass for me".

Likewise, no quality initiative can be accepted on face value - it must add value to the business and justify the time spent on training and implementation.

Nor can any quality initiative succeed without integrity, notwithstanding the Mark Twain quote mentioned earlier. Anyone involved has to have a firm belief in the benefits. There's no use in acting in a half-hearted way - something which Burns could never, either have been accused of. For example, he once explained why he wrote in Scots, thus:

"The Poetic Genius of my country found me, as the prophetic bard Elijah did Elisha - at the Plough; and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my natal soil, in my native tongue".

Getting a quality initiative going is hard work, even if willing hearts are involved. This integrity must contain some element of a continuous improvment culture, a feeling that your work must be the best possible that you can produce. Burns put it better (of course!) in "The Cottar's Saturday Night" when he wrote that:

"Princes and lords are but the breath of kings
An honest man's the noblest work of God".

Burns also understood that there is no personal animosity or spitefulness in quality; "God knows I am no saint" he said once "I have a whole host of follies and sins to answer for. But if I could, and I believe that I do it as far as I can, I would wipe all tears from all eyes".

A good quality person can concentrate on the task in hand, but also see the wider focus. Burns gives a good example for, while in church, he could be horrified as seeing a louse on a lady's bonnet, but also see the big picture:

"O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!"

And so, Robert Burns died at the age of thirty seven and ten thousand people came to his funeral in Dumfries. He might not have had the fanatic adulation the author Michael Arlen had, for example, in the 1920s, having had his trouser buttons torn off by a crowd of screaming women, but there's some Robert Burns in every true Scots' breast and vocabulary. Michael Arlen's books are now unavailable, even in dusty, secondhand bookshops. But Burns is remembered with affection as the poet protector of small things. Here, he evokes an otherwise totally unattractive object by saying:

"While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead".

He makes everyone laugh, the way he describes the haggis, with this mock heroic verse. And then, he looks at a mouse's nest, turned up by the plough, and writes:

"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang off agley,
An' lea'e us naught but grief an' pain
For promised joy".

The humanity shown in the poem, especially his heart-felt apology:

"I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken nature's social union"

is something which must be born in mind when introducing any quality initiative. Quality will only succeed by consent, rather than coercion, but since there's always a plough or some unwelcome superior force poised to inflict damage on our attempts to increase efficiency of output, the initiatives can only succeed when backed up by sound risk contingency planning. Surprisingly, Burns doesn't have a suitable quotation for this.

I'll conclude with one final Burns quotation which every quality professional should bear in mind. Burns explains his own motivation for poetry, starting with:

"Some rhyme a neebor's name to lash,
Some rhyme (vain thought!) for needfu' cash".

That's fair enough. But there's more to quality (and Burns) than that. I'll read on.

"For me, an act I never fash;
I rhyme for fun".

Fun is that missing ingredient which will make the difference between enthusiasm and drudgery. There's a lot of factors which can sabotage quality initiatives, but, as Burns reminds us all, there's one major factor which must be there for anything to succeed, and that's fun.

Ladies and gentlemen, I beg you please to be upstanding and raise your glasses to Robert Burns, who will never be forgotten, though he may often be misquoted, while quality exists in this world.

  posted by Dovya R @ 12:17 PM : 

Saturday, February 08, 2003  
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