Managers and metrologists use different skills to get the job done
by Philip Stein
It's often been said the devil is in the details, and I guess what that means is that full understanding of a topic, situation or metrology problem can't be achieved without examining the fine points.
I thought this might sound familiar to readers of this column, so I looked back and found that I did say something about details three years ago, in March of 2000 (p. 74). I found that detail interesting. I also found that column did not already reveal what I intend to discuss here, and that detail enabled me to go ahead with some confidence.
The whole issue came up during a lovely morning discussion over coffee with Grace Duffy, my friend and colleague. Duffy is also chair of ASQ's Quality Management Division, and we were discussing the differences in the skills required of a metrologist and a quality manager.
The Skills of a Manager
Management is a pursuit in which one of the most important skills is the ability to understand a situation after studying summary information. Any organization that employs more than a few people is too complex and has too much going on for a single individual to be aware of all the details, much less master them.
It's also inefficient and inappropriate for a manager to know everything about a business. That's why managers employ people with different skills and experiences--so those people can do things the managers can't or don't want to do.
All workers need information to perform their jobs. A highly functional information system will provide each worker with the correct information at the appropriate level of summarization. The president of a multimillion dollar organization doesn't need or want to see the cost of paper clips, just as a calibration technician doesn't want to worry about the payback period for a major capital investment.
Each level of management performs a specific and necessary function in a hierarchical structure. Each manager receives summarized or aggregated orders from above. One company I worked with, for example, gave the manager of each product line a profit goal for the year. It was up to that manager to translate profit goals into more detail and more specific activities for each part of his or her operation.
To achieve a profit goal, a product manager must create cost, volume, quality and productivity goals and communicate these to a lower level where more detail is required. Only the lowest level of an organization needs to deal with the finest details.
The real skill needed to properly address this task is the ability to translate and define what work is to be done. Management must translate goals such as profit requirements specified by upper management into parameters that can be understood and implemented by lower level employees. This goes on several times at different levels within the organization, and each time the goals are translated into terms and actions appropriate for the recipient of the instruction.
The Skills of a Metrologist
Metrology is different. To make a proper measurement, it is necessary to pay attention to all the details. Casual measurements made by the general public must be able to be done without care for the details, since care will not be taken.
Often, the metrology system is designed to minimize the need for special knowledge of details. Weighing, for example, has been designed so weight is reported with an approximation of the air buoyancy correction already included. Because of this, detailed buoyancy corrections may be ignored for virtually every commercial transaction and all but the most demanding scientific applications.
Still, metrologists have to be aware of all these details to determine when corrections are needed. When the requirements of a measurement are modest, the details may be omitted, but unless the details are known and understood, it's not possible to know when to omit them.
Here's a small sampling of the kind of factors a metrologist must consider, even if only to decide whether they matter for the measurement at hand.
When you are measuring the precise dimensions of an object, size variations due to temperature are probably most important, but there are also issues of deformation of the object by the measuring tool and even deformation of the object under its own weight to consider. Correction of size changes due to temperature requires precise knowledge of the temperature and the thermal expansion properties of the material from which the object was made.
When you are measuring low DC voltages, it's necessary to account for unintentional thermocouples made by using wires and terminals of differing metallic composition to make up the measurement circuit. Electrical interference can also play an important part. At high voltages, insulating materials may conduct enough current to distort the results--even the air can become conductive and disturb the measurement.
Knowing and accounting for local variations in gravity are necessary for many measurements of pressure, torque and force. If the pressure, torque or force being dealt with is created by some sort of spring or elastic element, the spring should be exercised over its useful range a few times to make the measurement more repeatable.
So metrologists spend their work days (and in fact their whole careers) looking at problems with a magnifying glass, trying to discern tiny influences that prevent their measurements from perfectly reflecting the underlying science. Managers, using very different skills, look at problems from an appropriate distance so the details do not obscure the larger issues.
PHILIP STEIN is a metrology and quality consultant in private practice in Pennington, NJ. He holds a master's degree in measurement science from the George Washington University in Washington, DC, and is an ASQ Fellow.