“The Mallet” (a short treatise on quality)

Back in 1978 I was a budding mechanical engineering student at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt had a summer internship program with a lot of the big fortune 500 companies as well as smaller companies. I do not remember his name, but I do remember talking to one of my fellow cohorts about his summer experience when he worked at one of General Motors manufacturing plants in which they were assembling cars. He opened up by saying he would never buy or own a GM product and went on to say that they were using rubber mallets to do the fit and finish of the cars on the assembly line.

I’m not taking about using a rubber mallet as a production tool, which is OK. I’m taking about using the rubber mallet as a solution to a quality problem. There’s big distinction there. Bare in mind this is over 30 years ago now, but the memory came back to me last year as GM went through the bankruptcy process. I thought, “What comes around goes around”. Maybe that was a fair thought, maybe not. I really do not know what was going on within GM these last thirty years, I’d hope that the literal practice of using a rubber mallet had changed, but figuratively speaking I was thinking they were still using the figurative rubber mallet to solve problems.

The figurative rubber mallet solution is the problem with a lot of manufacturing in the United States. It was a problem thirty years ago and it still is a problem today. Too frequently, companies have a clever marketing strategy to mask deeper intrinsic problems. They talk the talk and then follow the same ‘ol rubber mallet solution. Let’s think about that, what did GM lose thirty years ago by giving that student that impression of quality within one of America’s venerable giants in the American cultural persona, and more importantly, what did America lose by sending that impression back to an engineering school full of eager and talented young minds? Like I said, I do not remember that fellow’s name, so I can’t network and find out what he is doing today. I’d lay my money on red in Las Vegas that he very likely finished his formal schooling in engineering and then went on to become a Doctor or a Lawyer; or went into some other vocation other than diving into the manufacturing arena. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, those are honorable professions, but our manufacturing basis lost ground. We haven’t lost our manufacturing based solely on this anecdotal parable; obviously it has to do with global economic forces that have developed in the last thirty years, but a lot of it is because we have taken our eyes off of the Golden Goose, i.e., manufacturing and the quality within the manufacturing process.

Quality is approached many difference ways. One of them is the Edwards Deming solution, which is a statistical approach to quality. The Japanese auto manufacturers embraced his concept and they made huge inroads to the automotive market in the 1980’s. Regarding the issue I described thirty years ago, the Japanese would have identified the problem and developed the appropriate feedback to their supply chain and demanded that the parts meet specification subject to statistical verification. I think our company does this on a more tactile level. We are constantly monitoring the raw materials; we inspect the glass, the locks, the balances that we use everyday; and we check the finished product. My brother, Zeke, is a stickler for this. He constantly does an informal statistical sampling everyday. He is walking the plant and asking the supervisors if they have any problems. He is physically handling the parts themselves as they are used in the manufacturing process. (And thereby doing an informal statistical sampling.)

I’m trying to accomplish a lot with this short treatise on quality, one of which is to let our customers and potential customers get to know us better. I’m hoping that you can get a flavor of the culture of our company. I only hope that my brothers don’t mind my ramblings too much.

I want to make a rather unique comparison between alcoholism and quality; the connect between quality and the inherent imperfections of people. Just to set the tone, I’d like to say I’m not perfect, our employees aren’t perfect and our suppliers are not perfect. Within that set of conditions we are trying to achieve zero defects. Statistically that is impossible. At best we can get 99.xxx% correct windows, which means that we have a quality problem event 0.yyy% of the time. Pretty good, but we can also do better. Here in lies the issue. How do we get from 0.yyy% quality issues to 0.yyy%/2? Sorry about the math, I promise not to get any deeper on that side of the equation. Ok, so how can you make a connection to 0.yyy% quality defects and alcoholism? It’s easy, first and foremost is that you can not improve your quality if you deny there is a problem. If you say the 0.yyy% is not a problem, then your in denial of the problem. Like an alcoholic, GM was in denial of it’s problems for years; they denied it to their dealers, and their paying customer. Their problem was much more than the marginal increases in quality that I am talking about, but you can use it as a case study on how to get better. It was once: What’s good for GM is good for America. Well, I guess things have changed: ya think. Secondly and simply, once you have identified the quality problem you have to take it one day at a time, once an action plan has been established. If you read my post on my blog about the psychiatric process (family values) there are parallels to the diagnosis process. The manufacturing team has to monitor the process after the decision has been made to solve an intrinsic quality issue. Things change, what you thought you knew about the process might not be true. Finally even if you have a solution to a problem–you can fail each and every day. I’ve got an NFL analogy coming later in exposé on quality. As a preamble to that, you have to practice fundamentals each and every day.

You have to realize that people are fallible by nature. And you have to realize that you cannot get blood out of a turnip. You have to work with people. You have to build relationships with your suppliers; you have to build relationships with your employees to build a trust in the management. The company has to prove to the employees that their thoughts matter, both personally and professionally. They have to be a member of the team. And they have to know that they will not be victims of “kill the messenger” syndrome. If you can do that, then they will help you monitor the quality process and they will give you suggestions on how to do it better.

“The definition of a Champion”

Each and every year we have the NFL playoffs which leads to a new Super Bowl champion to be christened. I bet you money, at some point in the battles each and every year, some team member on the eventual winner will make a mistake. Somebody will miss a coverage; somebody will miss a block; somebody will be penalized for holding an opponent; perhaps there will be a miscommunication between the huddle and the sideline. Something will happen to the eventual champion. Notice I said champion and not winner. Believe it our not, somebody could win that game and not be a champion in my mind–though all of the USA will call them champions, which, they probably will be, but not necessarily. Champions manage their mistakes and take corrective action. Champions are the ones that repeat because they have worked on the quality process. (Don’t get me wrong, my intention is not to slight anybody that can make it to the Super Bowl: God knows, I don’t have the God given talent to make it there.) Champions acknowledge their errors and make sure the process is changed so that problems don’t occur systematically. The playoff games are fast paced, things are going to change by the minute and the second. Players and coaches are going to have to monitor that situation on a real-time basis and adapt. Manufacturing anything is like that.

(As a side note, if Champions get blamed for an infraction that they did not do, then that does not mean they will like to accept a penalty for an infraction that was caused by others. That’s an issue with customer relations, which is another issue. However, if a customer pays their bills, then I think a Champion will work with the customer even if the infraction was not caused by the champion. But that’s moving into the concept of partnership, which we also know very well. )

Back to football, if one team is pounding it up the middle, it would not be a good strategy to stay in nickel coverage. That would be analogous to the assembly line worker just pounding with the same rubber mallet, or as Elmer Fudd might say: mauwit. The solution is not a bigger mauwit. It is monitoring the situation and taking corrective action. In the football analogy it’s changing the strategy and getting that message to the players. (Maybe they go to a four-man front; maybe not–because I’m not an expert in football strategy. My real expertise in football is jumping up off the couch and yelling, “great play!”)

My real passion is windows and doors. It’s worth saying again: to get that last marginal benefit to the quality management process, our company’s team has prepared the organization to succeed by following the Alcoholics Anonymous credo–we take it one day at a time. We monitor quality everyday. We walk the plant floor: we walk the walk.

This is what it takes to get your quality level from 0.xxx% defect rate to a 0.yyy% defect rate. Leave your mauwit at home!!

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