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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Voodoo Quality

I have about 2 years experience as a engineer in a handful of manufacturing environments. I make no claim to be an expert. You don't need to work very long in manufacturing before you start seeing patterns. Everywhere I've worked, I've seen unnecessary paperwork, kluges, and most of all, half-baked propaganda about quality.

I believe it was Eisenhower who said farming looks very easy when your plow is a pencil and you're 1,000 miles from a corn field. In the same way, it's very easy to parrot vague, empty statements like "build quality into the product" or "customer satisfaction is our goal" or "we are committed to zero defects."

Workers want to do good work and companies want to please customers. When they fail, the problem is not with the slogans or the forms but with specific machines and materials. I leave out people because only machines and materials can be modified at will by engineers. If you want to change behavior, by say, telling the operators to use a new tool, the only way to make sure they do it is to take away the old ones. No amount of words written or spoken will change the mind of someone who wants fight the change and has the power to do so. This group includes most workers.

Here's the good news: the big answer is there are no big answers. There are only specific answers to specific problems, and you have to look damn hard to find them. IBM summed up every quality fad decades ago with their motto THINK.

The slogans and quality techniques are a fine compass, but you must draw the map yourself.

As far as the Japanese stuff goes, techniques which work well in Japan will not work in the US if the US workplace if different from the Japanese one where the technique started. I don't know how many US companies operate in a way similar to a Japanese one, but it could probably be counted on one hand. In Japan, lifetime employment is the norm. In the US, it's rare. In Japan, it is common for workers to die from exhaustion during overtime. In the US, private investigators are sent to make sure that disabled employees are not faking it. In Japan, top executives rarely make more than ten times the company's lowest paid worker. In the US, top executives usually make make tens or hundreds of times more than the company's lowest paid worker.

The whole Japanese thing about how the company is a team/family is legit over there. In the US, everyone knows that stuff is bullshit. So what kind of fool thinks Japanese slogans are going to translate to the US workplace? Thinking that using Japanese words will make you efficient is like thinking that using Swahili words will make you better marathon runner.

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