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.

It's true. Strange things happen while I'm in Scandanavia. So it was rather tempting fate to spend six months exploring every fjord with an almost Slarvadostian type of obsession and (it seemed) visiting every village on the nubbly railways which straddle the spine of Norway. So why was I surpsied when I landed back, totally invigorated by all this fresh air and fresh fish, to find someone sitting in my seat in the office.

It was male, young, polite (one point in his favour, I suppose), but I looked at him, immediately recognising a poisoned chalice. Of course, since I'd been too far away to take evasive action, I'd been the one volunteered to mentor the new apprentice.

He is sixteen. Sixteen! And two months, he informs me proudly. It's a long time since I was sixteen: it was a dark period, full of the struggle to get through exams and still have a social life, a period when I was finding out just what was the essential me, which was a shock in itself, and rather pretentiously reading Marx, Tolstoy and Machiavelli. However ... it was obvious that this new chap wouldn't be doing the same and, anyway, I wouldn't be asking him. My job was to let him know about quality. And since I don't really believe in evading the issue, I asked him what he thought about it.

The answer was not a lot.

I made a cup of coffee and wished I smoked.

Of course, if I turn to my Bible - the Quality Control Handbook edited by Juran, Seder and Gryna - the definition of quality at first appears quite simple: the degree to which a specific product satisfies the wants of a specific customer. But, as Juran warns, although this has been the historic definition which is still being used, it refers specifically to one stop transactions where the producer deals directly with the consumer. Juran, I think, prefers to deal with "quality control" and, after explaining the derivation of the term, he explains that he is dealing with broad definitions: that is, the total of activities which must be carried out to achieve the company's quality objectives. Or, to put it frankly, "the basic quality mission of a manufacturer is to meet the quality wants of specific consumers through specific products".

Letting Juran drop to my desk with a slight sense of relief (and making a mental footnote to use it next time I want to practice weightlifting), I turned to Caplen's classic handbook on quality. I have mixed feelings about Caplen. It's down to earth, good user-friendly language, but more than a little old-fashioned - I mean, the basic assumption is that men do quality and women do typewriters. Just what planet does this man come from? On the other hand, he's more pragmatic than Juran. He goes on about meeting the customer's requirements - yes, that's fair enough - and wants the minimum of scrap and rework - yes, very reasonable - but (this is the difference from Juran), Caplen insists that the supplier should make a profit from the whole transaction. The use of quality, after all, is not a philanthropic frippery: it's a basic strategic tool for competitive advantage and has to prove its worth.

The apprentice's eyes were glazing over. I could see that a new approach was needed to get through to him. Sure, Caplen and Juran have got the right idea, but I would have to show the passion of quality, the fire which makes people go those extra five hundred kilometres in the search for excellence, to show that the cost of quality is not just financial (painful enough), but can also be paid in human lives.

Richard III is the classic case. Having been brought up in a non-questioning and heavily Shakespearean dominated environment, I was content for many years to think of Richard (if I thought at all) as a snivelling little hunchback, who fled the battle of Bosworth Field, got stuck in a bog, probably due to his horse losing his shoe, died and glorious Henry VII took over and everyone lived happily after. (The quality implications being that if nasty Richard had looked after his horse, he could have fled to lose another battle another day).

This complacent view started to crumble as I started to question the bland history texts of my school days. For a start off, it looks like Bosworth was one of the worst-documented medieval battles, with no surviving eye-witness accounts documented. It's doubtful if the battle even took place in Bosworth - the only thing certain is that there definitely was a marsh - or a fen - or a bog. In addition, there was a ruthless and highly focused PR imperative from the Tudors to black the reputation of Richard III which was enthusiastically endorsed by Shakespeare. And, anyway, how can I possibly assume that a jobbing playwright, living in a volatile historical period, would tell the truth? Even if he knew
what the truth actually was?

So disregard Richard III as an example of the cost of quality or, at least, put him aside for another time when I want to show an example of a good and non-corrupt administrator who strengthened the fiscal system, freedom of religion, the jury system and someone who created the system of bail for those accused of crime.

My apprentice was still looking blank; I poured another cup of coffee, very black this time, and even sweeter.

I thought that, as a teenage boy, he might be interested in spectacular disasters. Julio's desk had a picture of the NOAA-N Prime spacecraft or, rather, two pictures. One was before 6 September 2003, a carefully posed picture of the 18' long spacecraft sitting proudly on its fixture at Lockheed Martin's plant in Sunnyvale, with equally proud white coated engineers standing in strategic places. The second was after, taken at 7:15 PDT on that day (if anyone wants to know), showing a very sad spacecraft. It was fallen about 3' off its fixture. It was, of course, severely damaged and even visibly dented. Further photos were impossible to obtain: NOAA-N Prime is under guard, all the records have been impounded, all personnel are being interrogated and, I hope, quaking in their white boots, as preliminary speculation suggests that two basic errors were made. The first is that technicians from another satellite programme, using the same sort of fixture, removed 24 bolts from the NOAA cart two days before the accident, without proper documentation. The second is that the NOAA team didn't verify the configuration of the fixture on September 6, because, after all, they had used it only a few days earlier.

Two classic quality mistakes. Simple, easy to remedy. And the result is this poor, innocent spacecraft lying on the floor with white-coated technicians surrounding it, accusingly.

The apprentice was quivering - some semblance of enthusiasm was returning to his face. I asked if he was interested in the Columbia Shuttle disaster. Of course he was. There's just something in the masculine psyche which thrills to disasters; besides, the American Society of Quality had just published their comments on the accident.

To everyone's relief - well, everyone involved with quality - the Columbia Accident Investigation Board exonerated quality assurance as being responsible for the Columbia space shuttle accident, in their August 2003 report. However, although the board suggested that NASA's culture was the main contributor to the accident, it also suggested that the Kennedy Space Centre had major deficiencies which could lead to further accidents. (By the way, I am citing Michael Dreikorn's report here - he's the chair of the ASQ Aviation, Space and Defence Division - and his comments are clear, concise and well worth following up).

The main point I made to the apprentice was that NASA has been - and still is - very compartmentalised in its flight centres. Every centre dictates the required level of its own employee skills and which quality processes should be deployed. I asked the apprentice why this should be significant, quality-wise. He swallowed, blushed and eventually stammered out the key word: "Variation". Yes, NASA seems to lack common processes, common tools, it even lacks common performance expectations. NASA is like a collection of villages: it needs to be one organisation with one voice for process and all looking in one leadership direction. I didn't quote much of Dreikorn's report to the apprentice, but, having remembered the Challenger disaster, I read it very carefully:

"To ensure safety, NASA must ensure quality. Quality can best be achieved by establishing a process that prevents deviation from plan and encourages front line workers ... to bring issues and concerns to management with confidence that these issues will be listened to and addressed.

A high-performing, quality-driven organisation is one in which business processes are well defined and people understand how to perform within a single enterprise. When NASA fully commits to both, the quality of the space shuttle program and the safety of all involved will be enhanced".
The apprentice was still interested; seeing as we were focused on avionics for most of our work, I thought maybe we could just see how quality - or lack of quality - was involved in one tragic episode in the history of radar. It was one of those domino effects: a simple cause leading, as inevitably as a Greek tragedy, to more gloom and disasters. The keyword was Blumlein. I guess that his family was an immigrant success story: his father had come from Germany, his mother was Scottish, though Blumlein was actually born in London (Hampstead, if you're being pedantic). He started off developing electrical recording techniques: he became interested in radar development, I think, because of the danger of war with Germany, and he was a key player in the development of airborne interception radar, microwave radar and ground-mapping radar.

On 7 June 1942, he was up in a Halifax V9977 bomber, testing radar equipment. The plane was 300' above the ground when an engine failed. He didn't have a parachute - to be fair, he probably wouldn't have expected to have one. The plane crashed, he died, as did everyone else. At first, the cause was thought to be German sabotage: eleven people were killed and there seemed no obvious cause. It was a bright sunny day, just wisps of cloud. It was a Sunday - there was little chance of getting in the way of other training missions, there were plenty of airfields nearby, in case of emergency. Blumlein himself had decided to go up in the plane at the last minute. Root cause analysis was applied instantly, with the caveat that this was war time and many details had to be kept secret. The cause seems to have been that a tappet lock nut was not fully tightened: a mechanic's error. The Rolls Royce report apparently indicates that the company were aware of the implications of this but ...

... before putting the full weight of blame on the mechanics, it's strange that this type of accident is not recorded as happening before or since.

And that's the problem with quality. You do everything you can to get things right, you prepare every single contingency plan possible, and then something different happens.

Yes, the passengers could have escaped by parachute. But would they have left the equipment to crash? As it was, horrific though it sounds, as soon as the investigators arrived at the site, they concentrated on rescuing the remains of the secret equipment first and it was taken back to RAF Defford, while the bodies of the eleven dead were left, just covered by a sheet.

Where that leaves quality, I'm not quite sure. The apprentice's eyes were shining. So that was a win. But I really wasn't prepared to talk about a disaster a day - a sort of macabre Arabian Nights - in order to maintain his enthusiasm. Quality is blood, sweat and tears, the most wonderful job in the world, but it's also long periods of thankless, hard, back-breaking routine. And would the apprentice survive this all?

Looking at his face, I thought, yes, maybe he would.

  posted by Dovya R @ 11:41 PM : 

Monday, December 08, 2003  
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