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Blogs: just a comment on a topic of the day

Were we really surprised to find horsemeat in the food chain? February 2013


Personally no.


Country A blamed country B, country B blamed country C, and country C blamed the extended food chain. If it could talk, I suspect that the extended food chain would blame the supermarkets for forcing given prices; they were told that we will only pay you n pence as we will sell our quarter pounder for n+p pence.


The FSA said they needed yet more audits. I’m not convinced.


My experience of achieving Quality is one of creating a culture where everyone naturally works towards providing what the customer expects. Suggest that there will be a control to check it and people lay back and say not my problem then. They will do whatever suits them and start dreaming up excuses for when things go pear-shaped. On reflection, isn’t that just what the industry did during the recent polemic?


Trying to control quality, whilst dictating two of the three corners (Cost, Delivery, Quality) was sure to fail. It seems that a part of the process is operating in a culture which does not understand that horsemeat is unacceptable. After all it is perfectly good to eat. Therefore, when short of beef and the requirement is to deliver by tonight, it will seem perfectly reasonable to meet customer requirements by adding some horsemeat.


Sorry guys and gals at the top, it is you who define the culture.


Five no brainers, lessons from which we would be daft not to learn: July 2011


Being fortunate to have experienced so many real benefits of Quality, I try to encourage others to take advantage of the lessons learned.


I was talking to an old colleague about this and it gave me the idea for this thought. I am sure I could easily find ten or more lessons, but another lesson learned is to start small.


Use control plans effectively

Technology changes, processes change, customers requirements and expectations change, raw material characteristics change, yet so often a ten year old control plan that was created without the benefit of the science of Quality, is still used to check the process. At the heart of this is the fact that we have to manage processes on the basis of risk/probability of failure. Therefore we must ask the questions:Is this really a critical parameter, or is there another characteristic which has become more important?

Is the sample size too big (wasting time and money) or too small providing inadequate confidence in the decisions taken?


Plan for effective trials

Many managers have progressed in their careers by virtue of their in-depth knowledge of processes; the gurus. Over the last twenty years, complexity of processes has left the gurus struggling to stay abreast of understanding how to control a process.

In today’s world the objective is to understand what is influencing a process, NOT simply to get good product. By understanding the influences it is possible to optimize a process; minimize cost of inputs and operation, maximize output and reduce variability.

Managers should be more interested in how a trial was planned than the results; because it is only if they have confidence in the plan they can have confidence in the results.

Issues include:

What questions do we want answered from the trial?

How critical is the decision we will take?

Can I have confidence in the gauge being used?

Do we have the right quantity of samples?

Have we analysed the data correctly?


Systematic reduction of variability gives better profits

We all know that Deming said Variability is public enemy number one. In today’s world we may say Improving capability is a boost to bottom line results. It is one thing to recite it, but another to understand, or to have benefitted from the benefits which accrue.

Here are some:

Less scrap,

less complaints.

Less line stoppages, providing better line efficiencies.

Smaller sample sizes: machine set-up, qc checks, capability studies, trials, …

More confidence in decisions based on data.


Control charts tell us if the process has changed, not …… that the product is out of specification.

Poor Mr Shewhart must be turning in his grave listening to the number of people believing the latter. This generally opens a whole can of worms:

Control limits are based on the process variability not specifications.

An incapable process cannot be improved through regular adjustment.

Control limits are not helpful until the process is stable.

You could be making defective product with all control points within the limits.

REMEMBER: Shewhart's princilpe raison d'etre of the control chart was for problem solving/process improvement; to ask questions Why has that changed?


When someone gives you a statistic

… ask for the possible range of values around the given statistic. This is important when taking decisions based on the statistic. For example: the average height of the sample is 23.4 mms, but the average height of everything we have made could be as low as 23.27 or as high as 23.53.

This concept applies to any statistic calculated from a sample; we take the sample so we can understand and make decisions about the whole production. This applies to :Gauge and process capabilities (both now provided by Minitab release 16)Averages and standard deviations



Not so long back, I had silent thoughts whilst listening to a potential client’s argument against systematic problem solving.
Pulling out the key elements, the gist went a little like this:


Client’s argument                                                 My silent thoughts


Of course we need to improve                             … Improvement means problem solving; they are one and the same activity.


… and we have invested heavily in new technology to do just that


                                                                            ... 1960’s relied on the muscle of the workforce 2000’s relies on the intellectual capital of

                                                                                 the workforce to find creative solutions. Technology tends to be available to
                                                                                 competitors; creative ideas from your employees will give you the edge.



… but we don’t need to waste precious time and resources pulling people away from their day job,


                                                                            … The best source of understanding and improving is with the people who work in the
                                                                                 process; they are closer than anyone to the issues.



… in any case, some problems just happen, there is no rhyme nor reason to some them, it’s just the way it is and has always been.

                                                                           ...  Newton started people thinking about the science behind why everyday events happen;
                                                                                rain falls due to gravity, not because the flowers need the water to live. Darwin upset a lot
                                                                                of people showing everything has a root cause and things don’t just happen for no good



Last time we asked the workforce what the problems of the business were, we were inundated with a load of gripes and grumbles.


                                                                           ... The 1980’s initiatives to brainstorm all the perceived problems in the business, helped
                                                                               employees realise the extent of the improvement required; it failed to highlight the vital
                                                                               problems which only managers can solve. Mangers need to be involved and accept there
                                                                               are problems they have not yet solved. Delegating initiatives to the lower echelons will not



We don’t have the money to throw at fancy solutions to the manufacturing problems,


                                                                          … It is not a matter of money. Every business needs improvement, or has problems to be
                                                                              resolved. There needs to be a culture of problem solving, looking for the creative solutions,
                                                                              which is led from the top.



… remember that we employ experts who have worked with the processes for years, they know how to get things going again, they have
    seen the same problems a hundred times before.

                                                                             ..Experts are no longer able to perfectly understand the complexity of today’s processes.
                                                                               Problems need to be killed once and for all, not just stunned to return again and again. It is
                                                                               no longer acceptable to regard processes as an art, we must convert them into a science 
                                                                               (just like Newton and Darwin did).



We have few problems in the offices. Procedures seem to work alright and that is confirmed by the fact we have ISO 9000.


                                                                            ...Recent work has shown that although many manufacturing processes operate at a few
                                                                               parts per million defective, waste in office processes is greater than 50% of all tasks being
                                                                              erroneous, un-needed, duplicated or ineffective.
                                                                              There are huge opportunities for waste reduction.


What's all the fuss about problem solving: June 2010

A cultural experience travelling by train: July 2009


I was recently travelling by train from Zurich, via Milan, to Venice; two separate Intercity journeys. The difference between the two experiences was significant to my perception as a traveler. Timeliness, cleanliness, staff attitude, maintenance, helpfulness and lucidity of information, to mention the main differences.Why should there be such a difference? I can only surmise.Perhaps the culture of the Swiss is one where all employees share a vision of what I expect as a traveller and strive to achieve that. Procedures are there to help achieve those passenger expectations. Indeed employees are passengers on occasions, so can understand what is required.


As a result the train departs and arrives on time, it is clean, air conditioned, smart uniformed staff happily stop to give advice and announcements come through clear public address systems in several languages.


I had the impression on the Italian leg of the journey, that the culture is not similar; indeed we expect adjacent country cultures to be different. For the Italian employees, it is just a job; I imagine a manager in an ivory tower decided how things should be done. The employees’ objective appears to be to demonstrate they followed the rules. Experiences I endured were:


I joined a queue at the ticket office which had just one position open. After five minutes I arrived at the front of the queue to be confronted with a board saying the office was temporarily closed. I saw the employee restock the till with change, tidy papers then go and stand outside with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Ten minutes later he returned to a very long queue of frustrated customers.

I imagine the procedure said he can take a break of ten minutes every hour.


When buying the ticket there was no notice, nor verbal warning given, that due to a train crash at Padova a few days earlier, the train would be diverted along a different route and arrive two hours late.The train was 20 minutes late leaving the terminal as a team of cleaners rushed through passenger filled compartments, leaving piles of rubbish on the floor; but I imagine the procedure said they had to check all carriages.


The public address system was so distorted to be inaudible, aggravated by a noisy train. Air conditioning not working with an outside temperature of 28°C.


Some people say this is the delight of the Italian culture.

Sorry, I see it as a failure to join the twenty first century.Quality can only be achieved if the culture wants to serve the customer. Employees follow their bosses example, so only the top guy can define the culture.


Disraeli has a lot for which to answer: June 2009


Mark Twain claimed, but never offered the proof, that it was Benjamin DISRAELI (1804 – 1881) who said “There are three types of lie; lies, damned lies and statistics”.

He should have finished the quote with:
“… as crooks know how to lie with statistics, honest men must learn them in self-defence.”


Many managers cling to the first part of this quotation as the reason not to use data. But other oft heard excuses for not bothering to understand a process through the suitable use of data are:

  • Managers are paid to have a gut feel about the business and make decisions, not waste time looking at data.

  • Managers achieve their seniority through exhibiting competences in fields other than using data efficiently.

  • There is a tradition in the Western world of poor ability with statistics; some managers even brag that they are useless.

  • It is quicker to guess and it makes you look important in front of your subordinates.

  • If it is a bad decision, there will always be something else to blame other than you ignored the data.


We can show that the objective of most decisions taken in business is to resolve a problem.

When manufacturing processes were outputting 5% defects (1960s) it was reasonable to make improvements – solving problems is the same thing - by guessing at the likely root cause of the problem. There was a high probability that the chosen action would improve the process; there were so many remedies available to the business that would make an improvement. But, over the years these evident remedies have mostly been actioned, leaving only the less evident. Now we live in an environment where there is no money to waste on actions that do not deliver a financial return. We need to be sure the chosen remedy is appropriate; we do this by collecting data and analysing it.


The best decisions …

… are based on an understanding of what is happening, what is influencing the unacceptable aspect of the process operation. This is achieved by theorising on the likely root causes, calculating the probability of the chosen root cause being the true obstacle to an improved performance, estimating the risks, and deciding on the actions. All done with specially planned and collected data.

Yes it takes time, but there is no returning time after time to resolve the same problem; which is the norm when guesses are made. Cost analysis shows this to be the most effective use of money and resources.


I heard it said once, that the Japanese have problems communicating with the written word due to the complexity of their character set. They prefer to use numbers to describe problems. This explains their success with process improvement techniques.


Wake up and smell the coffee: April 2009


In the light of a football player being found as unregistered after 11 weeks of playing for the club, Football Conference chairman Brian Lee says Oxford United should review their procedures, but refuses to acknowledge the need for his own people to do more than strengthen theirs up. We are told that the strengthening carried out by the Conference involves only changing the team sheet to require the player’s registration number to be shown next to his name.

Any quality professional will tell you that a procedure, however robust, will only operate error free if there is a culture within the business which, or where:

  • Accepts procedures are there to help the users and not provide an unnecessary level of bureaucracy.

  • Are audited regularly by the business.

  • The guy at the top is seen to be interested in audit review and feed-back actions.

  • Audit non-conformances are seen as opportunities to improve and not events to be defended.

  • Procedures are written by those who operate the process, not forced on people to give a semblance that things must be right because that is how they are told to do it.

In April, we heard David Cameron say something similar about the culture in Downing Street and the strengthening of procedures by Gordon Brown.

How good are businesses in general at complying with a procedure?

Let’s make the comparison between a manufacturing process and a business-process such as those used in the Conference League. In both it is a series of tasks carried out; the former is a series of mechanical tasks done by a machine, the latter a series of office tasks done by human beings.

We know that manufacturing processes have improved to a point where now, many industries have only a few defective parts per million emerging from the process. Compare that with business processes where it is suggested that human beings on average make errors in one out of every two office tasks.

So, we can be fairly confident both the club and the league made errors. No point in trying to claim they only employ supermen and women, no they employ humans in a culture where I suspect there is no modern management system. Next season they will still be making loads of errors, creating waste in rectifying the errors they notice and in defending the errors they do not notice.

To try and reduce errors in business processes, many businesses work towards ISO 9000. After 20 years of compliance and third party audits, many businesses understand the value of a robust management system (set of procedures), understand how to make it helpful for the business, understand how everyone is involved. They can then drop the costly third party audits and certification because their system is living. They have woken up and smelt the coffee; they will continually eliminate waste and make their customers happy.

What should the Conference do to stop a similar problem happening next season?

Too late to give the clubs back the points they deducted; learn from it and commit to continually improve, not just a knee jerk reaction combined with an unsubstantiated claim they are now perfect again.

If nothing significant is done, and we have not seen evidence that it will, problems will happen again. From experience when strengthening is used for a procedure, it normally means putting a plaster on it and making it more complex. So the Conference need to install a real Management Quality System and ensure their managers understand what, where, when, why, how and who. For example:

  • The clubs are the customers of the Conference, without them it is nothing.

  • Procedures should be understood and agreed by both clubs and Conference; imposing procedures is a recipe for error and waste.

  • Write joint procedures that cross the interface between Conference and clubs.

  • Simplify procedures; not strengthen them to make it more complex and more prone to error.

  • Procedures that are said to exist; are they documented, current versions, used, available, understood, audited, reviewed, ..,

  • When a customer complains do not immediately say It was your fault. Investigate and explain what has to be, or will be, done differently in the future.

  • Transparency makes for better working relationships; as yet no report has been published and what does that suggest?

Things that will go wrong next season in the absence of actions.

  • The wrong code will be put against a player and it will not be spotted.

  • A code will not be available, so left blank on the form.

  • The postal system will fail to deliver registration documents.

Modern quality professionals know how to handle all this, in the same way that professional engineers know how to construct a Formula one car that performs on the day. Time the Conference brought in the professionals.

Quality and the recession: February 2009


So the US car industry has moved from a dominant 70% of world market to a measly 25%. I wonder why? Will propping up the banker type strategies that got them into this mess really save the day. President Obama says he will only give them money if they sort out their manufacturing processes. We will need engineers and qualiticians at the helm for that task, not the cost-cutting, short-termist, accountants.


Back in the 60’s the warning bells started to ring. A few industries understood. The Japanese said the West would never catch them, so they would openly share their thinking on Quality. For the most part they were right. In fact originally it had been western thinking but the accountants saw their influence would shrink in business, so delegated the new tools to the lower echelons, realising a culture change would never succeed without the top leading it. I think they genuinely believed that money could be made by cutting costs rather than cutting waste by improving core processes. We have now seen the havoc brought about by the bankers’ strategies.


Big change was seen in some companies in the late part of 20th century when some CEOs put their overalls on, and said we need to understand our core processes. I remember one CEO saying to his board that the choice was theirs, get on the train for change or find other employment. The culture change was amazing, the bottom line results just got better. But the accountants eventually got back in and made money more quickly from short term strategies … until now. The truly lean companies will survive, not the anorexic ones that wasted the opportunity to work on process understanding and just cut where a quick kill was seen.


Some work I did back in 1995 showed there was a direct correlation between the levels of waste and the Quality culture of a business. The top guy insists on:

  • 5S

  • speaking with data

  • people involvement

  • listening and working with customers

  • systematic improvement by top managers

  • elimination of non-value adding tasks

  • a Quality system as a foundation to build on not an award in the reception hall

…  to name a few.


This has to be the way forward – a strategy to change the culture to one where everyone is striving to understand and effectively improve core processes.

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