Saturday, November 26, 2011

World Quality Month

I think that some ideas must be emphasized and "lived" everyday of our lives and since I work in the Quality profession and this is World Quality Month and my blog is about quality, I want to focus on quality and why it's important to live it everyday.

So, what is QUALITY? There are various definitions, from the metaphysical (Persig) to the practical (Juran, et. al.) to the casual. For our discussion I want to consider two aspects of quality, subjective and objective. Ask someone, "does this have good quality?" and point to anything in your environment. If you ask several people, you might get different answers based on their experience, education and field of work. This is known as subjective quality. On the other hand, if you have a specification and you measure a product against it (e.g. an ink pen with plastic barrel OD of 4 +/- 0.1mm) and it is within the specification then you can say that it also has good quality. This is objective quality. Our business, our life, is a combination of these two aspects of quality and there are endless books, articles and lectures available to explore either or both aspects. I think that the subjective aspect, measured qualitatively, gets short shrift in business as the inane mindsets of "you can't manage what you can't measure" and "if you don't have data you only have an opinion" rule the business world. Life is more than quantitative measures and business--as part of life--is also more than quantitative measures. Qualitative/subjective quality is a big part of our lives, so the better question is not "what is quality?" but "what is quality to you?".

For me, it means adding value to the world, to society. Making people's lives better, in even tiny ways. I've worked in manufacturing for almost 14 years with most of that time in some kind of "Quality" function in the automotive industry, arguably one of the most regulated and competitive industries in the world. My role in the Quality department has changed over time with changing business conditions and the responsibilities of my specific positions. My thinking also changed for those reasons and due to my experience and education. Now I see that even though I play a large role in a large company the direction that I give and the actions that I take influence only a tiny part of the world. My sphere of influence includes several dozen people directly, and my audience includes several thousand through this blog and my postings on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. The results of my work affect the drivers of certain automobiles in global markets and the patients in some hospitals. All of this influence, added together, is but a small drop in the ocean of the world. However, I know that it does make people's lives better and, for now, it is the limit of my influence and voice. I will never stop trying to add value and improve the condition of the world, in big or small ways.

What about you? What does quality mean, from your heart? What do you do about it? What do you want to do?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Passion for Quality

I accidentally became involved in Quality at the end of 1999. I was working as a team leader in the Production department and I thought that the inspections and audits done by the Quality department were very interesting. It looked like they knew what they were doing and could handle difficult situations, even arguing with the Supervisor if necessary. So I applied for a position and I was accepted. I started as a Quality Engineer in early 2000 and since I was the lowest level person in the department I was sent to the customers when we had quality problems. I had a lot of experience in dealing with irate customers and finding solutions to their problems. Typically the solutions that I would define, together with Engineering, would involve either changing the design or adding a new machine to the process. I was clearly told by my Manager that either option was not possible and that I would have to find a different way to solve the problem. It was at that time that I started to hone my problem solving abilities by finding simple, often unorthodox, ways to solve problems. They weren't pretty but they worked well and they were cheap. That was really the start of my passion for quality, when I discovered that I could use my creativity to solve customer problems.

The more that I worked in Quality the more I was able to apply my reasoning and creativity to causes further up the manufacturing stream, into Purchasing and eventually Design. I found that it was much easier and cheaper to fix a problem in the Design phase rather than in the Production phase. After I was trained as a Six Sigma Black Belt I learned that statistical tools could not only be applied to manufacturing processes but also could be applied to product and process design. In fact, it made more sense to apply them there rather than in production. This also sharpened my thinking about problem solving and led to looking for ways to prevent problems. During this time my passion for Quality continued to grow.

Working in Japan for more than three years, as Head of Quality for an automotive supplier, really refocused my attention on meeting customer expectations. The automotive customers in Japan are the most demanding in the world, and it took a lot of effort for me to learn their unique style of working and also to adapt my thinking to the Japanese style. The effort was worthwhile and I can say that my thinking about Quality, and many other things, was permanently altered by my experience there. The Japan office was also a Design center so I could directly influence the design of the products with my ideas about Quality. I also better understood the challenges of the Design group. I came to see Quality with a greater passion than before, seeing how it truly linked with all aspects of the company.

Now I am in China working with a new team and with new challenges. I see the tremendous opportunities in this country and I see the tremendous difficulties. I will work here in Shanghai for the next three years and I am sure that my thinking will be influenced again by this new culture. Starting in Michigan and then working through Japan and now China, I continue to learn; now I can teach others based on my education and experience. I think that learning and teaching will help me to continue to grow my passion for Quality now and in the future.