When I started my career nearly 20 years ago, the world was a little different. People were still smoking in the workplace, Dilbert was in everybody’s desk and the quality program of the month was the joke du jour. Many things have changed since then for the goodness of the world and the quality of products and services, but the fact is, it wasn’t easy. So if you are just starting your quality career or if you have been there, you may want to know that reaching for continual improvement is really not so easy and a caveman could not do it!
Way back when, smoking was commonplace and allowed in most businesses. As a young engineer it was strange- not that I had not seen my parents smoke their entire lives- to see people holding a cigarette in one hand and running a mill with the other one. It made me think “hmmm…isn’t this a potential for an accident?” Coming fresh out of college it made me wonder if my human factors class or environmental class may apply. But you looked around and everyone was doing the same, so you though… well maybe it is the normal thing, maybe nobody’s hurt themselves.
Then I started to find out as I got to know the organization more and more that yes there had been accidents and some had been more serious than others. And let’s not talk about what went or did not go to the sewer or who was driving the forklifts. Risks were abundant and knowledge was weak. Luckily with the advent of ISO 14001, Responsible Care, OSHA’s firm hand and other programs, organizations are much better now when it comes to Safety and Environment.
The awareness is greater and the tools abound to help an organization become more responsible towards the safety of its employees and the community and the safeguarding of the environment.
I was lucky to experience the good ole boys at its fullest, always making decisions without the need for data or fancy charts. Although mistakes happened, it just seemed like they were not really flying by the seat of their pants but rather flying by the seat of their experience. So while things were not written down and manuals were not the norm, they were actually relying solely on their experience. It was interesting to see that when the good ole boys were not around we will go by our ad-hoc procedures and such, but when the good ole boys were around they seem to be calling all the shots.
I started to wonder why some of their suggested changes were made on the first place. I remembered working heavily in putting formulas down, writing temperatures and settings for everything I found, in my quest to document processes. Although at times I thought my work was in vain, it was very rewarding when ISO 9000 came to life because I had finally found a system where I could hold on to. Luckily Certification to ISO came as an order by the power of almighty from our corporate office, hence all resistance was futile. ISO 9000 was one of the greatest tools that happened to us and probably to many companies. It was just great to see that with or without the good ole boys, we would now be able to sustain our production for years to come.
ISO 9000 is indeed one of the best tools created not just for manufacturing but for the goodness of every organization. Industry specific standards, such as AS9100 for Aerospace, TL9000 for telecommunications, TS16949 for Automotive, ISO 27001, for Information Security, are among some of the enhanced standards to help any business provide better products and services, consistently and accurately.
When you are an employee and you are trying to convince your organization to do a quality improvement, well you may find out that not all management is created equal. Some are very supportive and in fact very knowledgeable and understand what the purpose of what you are doing is and want to help you. But some of them go by certain metrics that require you to prove yourself differently and to put a little fighting to implement basic improvements. If top management is not knowledgeable of continual improvement concepts, have not seen the value created when improvement tools are applied correctly, they may not see value in sending employees to learn new quality concepts or programs that will ultimately benefit the company. Training is necessary to improve the competency of employees and the products and services that the organization provides.
Principles such as Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, 5S, etc. are proven concepts that have been in place for a while and have helped organizations worldwide improve their products and services. For some organization if you are doing a great job it means improvement is not necessary. In fact too many emails or conferences may look as if you are wasting your time. Top management beware: sometimes the best ideas, tools and concepts are introduced to us through a newsletter, conference or magazine. So stay in touch with the rest of world and the quality community…like a box of chocolates, you may find new things every time.
Back in the 90’s you used to hear a lot about the program of the month, in fact many people who were against the quality movement will make fun of any quality program and call it the program of the month to undermine its importance. Well that was a fallacy, in reality some of these programs were good and eventually were accepted with somewhat different names. Just In Time, Total Productive Maintenance, etc. are somewhat predecessors of Lean Manufacturing, Kanban, Supply Chain management, etc. and so if you had started some of these programs, you would be ahead. Of course not everything applies to all organizations, for example a chemical company may not be able to implement a Kanban system because it is just not setup in batches, but another organization that is doing assembly may be more suitable for that kind of improvement. So don’t be afraid to recommend a program that has proven valuable and useful in world-class organizations. With a little research and minor changes, your organization may benefit greatly from these programs.
It’s not so easy a caveman could not do it.
Some of the quality concepts such as ISO 9000, QMS, Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, 5S have existed for a very long time, but if you are living in your own little cage, you may not even know some of these programs. Is not that they are too easy or too hard, is just that you won’t even know about them. Back twelve years ago, I worked for a company that had implemented- ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and QS9000 because top management had the knowledge and our customers required them. I mean any ISO standard, you name it we had it. This was only possible because we had top management support and top management understood those concepts. So far so good in the ISO standard arena, but beyond that none of us had really had much training or exposure in other new concepts that were coming out such as Lean Manufacturing.
But we were lucky. We had a large customer who had a behemoth supply chain program team, who one day realized that we were a critical supplier to them and if they made us better they will in turn get better. So they descended upon us like in a mission from God and parked themselves about 6 months in our facility and taught us all that had to be taught in Lean Manufacturing, 5S, Kanban, Kaizen and all these great programs. Nowadays I see companies who are barely starting in their Lean Manufacturing journey and wonder if they just weren’t ready before, the knowledge was not there or top management just simply did not understand those concepts and therefore prevented their organization from adopting them.
If you are not lucky as we were with a supplier who came and taught us new quality concepts, then make sure there is another venue for your organization to learn about improvement tools.
So whether you are young or seasoned quality person, it is important that you come out of these area that is called your organization and maintain your networking relationships alive. Whether it is seeking certifications, i.e. Certified Quality Engineer; reading articles from Quality Digest, Quality Progress or other industry publications; looking at what your suppliers or customers are doing; attending conferences, etc.; you have to stay in touch. Otherwise how else are you going to learn these principles unless you find out about them first?
If you feel your company could benefit from new quality programs, tools and concepts, don’t stay in a cave. If you think you are doing great at your work, there is always room for improvement. If you stay in a cave you will end up looking like the good ole boys, just going by your experience. I once was told “I have made millions with this pen” by someone who was against technology. While making millions with a pen may be true, things change, your manpower changes, the competition changes and so we have to change and adapt or our experience will not be valuable anymore.
So go ahead stay competitive and updated and give your organization the world class quality status it deserves.