A Midstream Career Change

by Jim Heimbach

I began my life in the real world with a new engineering degree, a new job with a major aircraft manufacturer and a new baby. I was educated in the traditional mechanical engineering manner: plenty of physics, materials, thermodynamics and some electrical engineering thrown in for good measure. Somehow, this was going to prepare me for an engineering career in manufacturing or design.

I had not taken a single class dedicated to understanding quality as we know it today. There was no mention of W. Edwards Deming, Joseph M. Juran or any of the other quality gurus. Quality in those days was a term related to conformance to blueprint specifications rather than the more customer oriented approach we are familiar with today. Things like process optimization, voice of the customer or on-time delivery were not in the popular vernacular.

My first brush with the quality industry was after two years as an intern for the Boeing Co. I was loaned to Boeing’s Advanced Quality System (AQS) program. The AQS program was run within the material division and charged with pairing Boeing personnel with select suppliers. The goal of the AQS program was to apply a very specific methodology to correcting problematic parts supplied by vendors.

The AQS program setup was remarkably similar to the Six Sigma Black Belt program—the same course material and training schedule, the same project selection criteria and the same expectations. This was radically different from anything I was trained for.

Fortunately, the AQS program was set up in a manner that made for effective training. This was important since at the time, nobody in the training sessions had experience with the material. Topics like statistical process control, designed experimentation and root cause analysis were completely foreign to all of us. All the course materials were taught by Boeing’s statisticians, all of whom had experience in the real world and not the stereotypical theoretical variety. They were able to relate the course material to actual problems.

The biggest influence on my career was my immediate supervisor—I’ll call him Steve, although that’s not his real name—during my six-month AQS project. Steve was a statistician charged with providing leadership for the three or four project teams being run at any one time. During my tenure with the program, he coached us in effective writing skills, presentation skills and how to apply the tools we learned in the training.

Steve admitted more than once that he knew nothing about the manufacturing or assembly of aircraft and that he relied on us, the engineers, to know that. Still, Steve was able to ask probing and often revealing questions of the data that would lead us down a path of investigation. On occasion he would provide us with an obscure statistical method to test a hypothesis. This is what I wanted to do for a living. It had taken me three years to learn I had earned the wrong degree.

After the Boeing AQS project, I had a successful career as a process engineer with several other companies. It was always my experience with the AQS project that got me in the door with prospective employers. They were interested in a process engineer who could apply a methodical approach to problem solving and back up the results.

Statistics Calls

A career in engineering paid the bills but did nothing to satisfy my interest in applying statistics to real-world problems. I had seen the potential for high order statistics in making process improvements or process modeling. It would take five more years to take the plunge and go back to school for a master’s degree in applied statistics and certified quality engineer status.

I enrolled in the John D. Hromi Center for Quality and Applied Statistics at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and committed myself to more than four years of long nights and weekends while trying to hold down a normal career as a process engineer. I won’t say it was an enjoyable experience, but I can say it gave me a different perspective on quality—specifically the im-portance of customer focus and the role statistics can play in industry.

The experience also opened my eyes to the fact it can take much more than the traditional tool box offered in the AQS or Six Sigma training programs to solve some problems. There are times when higher order statistics are required to get at the root of a problem or accurately model a process.

This was one of the important services Steve offered to Boeing’s AQS program. He knew when to apply the appropriate tool to a scenario and not to make a situation fit a specific method that was taught in the course. Another important realization from my career in engineering and statistics was that too often statistical software applications are put into the hands of individuals who have not been trained in their various methods or assumptions. A professor at RIT equated this to giving the keys to a car to an infant.

The master’s degree has rounded out my career. The industrial statistics combined with the background in process engineering has made for a marketable résumé and one completely different from my original career plans. The experience also led to my being exposed to many different industries and quality perceptions.

JIM HEIMBACH is a statistician with Lonza Biologics in Portsmouth, NH. He earned a master’s degree in applied statistics at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and is an ASQ certified quality engineer.

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