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.

Julio said that he wanted to introduce Six Sigma to the Flying Branch. What he actually meant was that he wanted to bounce up and down on the jump seat in the cockpit and get a closer look at the "co-operative targets", which the plane would be tracking. It's all very well to see a few distant contrails in the far horizon: he wanted to be able to look out of the window and see a fighter or, preferably, two, flying parallel to the plane about a fifth of a mile away, so that he could give a lordly wave. My aims were more modest; in a rare example of hero worship, I merely wanted to bring the pilot of a cup of coffee every hour or so. I already knew how he liked it: a type of gritty, blackish mud, which was, as it happened, just as well, as that was all that was on offer.

But the price for doing this was very high. Not money, though, and we both already had adequate security clearances ... and we both were quite accustomed to putting brave faces on situations which were unexpectedly bizarre, weird or downright scary. So leaving for an outdoor centre at the crack of dawn was no hardship, not even being tossed into a dreich loch with twenty other people and three dinghies and being requested (a polite euphemism for the roars which came from the banks) to alternately climb in and out of the dinghies and, between times, swim in a long, interlocking row, like a bedraggled caterpillar.

This sort of training was in case the plane got into a situation it couldn't get out of. Julio's mutters that this was the sort of thing he was trying to prevent were drowned by the grunts and shouts of everyone bar the instructors who were, incongruously, sipping lime and ginger tea.

The doctor and I got on quite well, at first. He was experimenting with control charts to monitor diabetes. But he was, I think, a very keen dart player, as I found out when it came to taking blood.

Nor was he used to patients knowing a bit about their own bodies: when I say my blood pressure is low, I really do mean it, and having the equivalent of a tourniquet put on my arm before I've checked my email is not the way to keep me calm. The doctor was, unfortunately, very thorough: he checked my blood pressure three times before he was happy and, just to be on the safe side, made me take off my glasses and measured all sorts of depth perceptions and focal planes. I was quite pleased to get away from him, though glad I hadn't taken Julio's approach of "I am quite healthy, please take your hands off me", which hadn't actually worked.

It wasn't really necessary to have our initial briefing at 15:05:45 precisely in the administrative hut on the airfield a couple of days in advance, especially as the gist of it was to keep out of the way and, if there was an emergency, just follow the designated crew member and do what he did. We had to fill in a complicated form with next of kin details and were then dismissed with the warning to ensure we wore warm clothes on the day. Which is why, just after dawn on the day, two figures, swathed in silk, leather and black fur, looking a little like gothic Michelin Men, could be observed, waddling over to the hangar by any plane spotter who took his eye off the main target.

Julio and I had a fundamental disagreement about Six Sigma on this occasion. He knew the pilot as an excellent flying professional; I knew him as a person and I also knew that he wasn't quality-literate.

Of course, any pilot has a strong instinctive feel for the Six Sigma philosophy, or, at least, an equally strong disinclination for being in charge when an accident occurs. And his manager had a laissez-faire attitude, delegating the work, and trusting his team to perform at their best. In my opinion, it wasn't a suitable cultural attitude for Six Sigma, or at least, not for Six Sigma as we know it. The problem is ... what is Six Sigma anyway?

Julio quoted Gillian Madden's definition wholecloth: "Six Sigma is the aplication of statistics to any business process. It uses the knowledge that variation exists in everything that we make or do. Six Sigma is a philosophy of moving products and processes to an optimal target and reducing variation around that target, preventing rather than detecting defects". And he waved a slide from the same Gillian Madden talk under the pilot's nose. It showed two airplanes landing on a runway where the vertical parallel lines denoted specification limits. Both planes had met specification, in that they'd landed on the runway for five successive runs, but one had landed at a different place each time, while the other had landed more or less in the same place each time. The caption on the slde asked accusingly, in blood red capitals: "Which pilot would you fly with?" Julio was so sure the pilot would choose correctly, that he had already launched into the statistics underlying the theory when he interrupted himself "No, no, no, it's the other one!" Amidst mutterings of decreasing the number of defects to 3.4 per million and how to select decision nodes or use the DMAIC process ("it stands for Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control" said Julio, rather slowly, as if he were talking to a foreigner), I went off to the other end of the plane to look at the equipment and make some coffee. I don't know about the pilot, but I certainly needed it.

When I got back, Julio was giving examples of Six Sigma in action, and the pilot was drumming his fingers up and down. He and I were asked to applaud the decision of the National Science Foundation who cut the cost and danger of evacuating sick people from Antarctica by pre-screening for possible potential psychological problems. We were faced with a hospital which used this process to reduce prescription errors by making doctors type their prescriptions into a computer, rather than write them out the hard way. "Look at Northrop Grumman!" cried Julio triumphantly. We all gazed into the middle distance for a minute and a quarter, possibly contemplating Northrop Grumman.

I think Julio realised he wasn't going to win this battle. He retreated gracefully back into the role of passenger and stared out of the window as the plane accelerated down the runway and took off. The pilot certainly wanted some form of checklist to deal with all the pre-flight details - I mean, when you've got so many panels on your flight display (I lost count at 45), you need some sort of logical order. But his feeling seemed to be that there were so many uncontrollable variables that he would use his training and experience to counter-balance them as they occurred and, besides, he wanted to eat his packed lunch in peace and quiet. (It was brown bread, with Ayrshire blue cheese, by the way).

It was a good day. We flew up and down the Irish Sea, while our targets flew around and away from us so much that sometimes there was a doubt who was the target and who the tracker. I thought at first that the pilot was showing Julio favouritism when he invited him to another flight two days later and pointedly left me out of the equation: but I realised why when I met Julio later. The pilot had practiced his safety manoeuvres by cutting out one engine without telling Julio, then had (also without telling him) put him under 2Gs pressure and kept up the fun and games until Julio was sick. He vowed never again to eat that Scottish Stiltony cheese. Personally, I smothered a giggle. It all confirmed what I'd suspected all along: the pilot had style. And I'm flying again next Monday, this time over the North Sea.

  posted by Dovya R @ 10:08 AM : 

Wednesday, April 02, 2003  
Powered By Blogger TM