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  

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  

"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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