Perfectionists Make Bad Machinists

by Charles J. Ellis

I entered the strange and wonderful world of quality in 1985. Previously, I was a machine operator in an industrial shock absorber factory. I cut chrome plated rod and operated two computer numerical control (CNC) machines. In those days, CNC machines used paper ribbons with holes punched in them that contained the program to guide the tools. When you wanted to change the tool path, you had to punch out a new ribbon.

One of the machines I ran drilled a series of precision holes into a metal tube. My foreman told me the position of these holes was critical to the function of the final assembly. Being new to the job, I absorbed his words as though they were scripture. I was determined to earn that $5 an hour. Every time the machine would stray from the path, I would call the machine programmer to “punch me a good paper ribbon.” I would not accept anything other than perfect parts.

This did not endear me to the powers that be. In my young naiveté, I could not fathom the “almost is good enough” attitude of my peers. People who worked in manufacturing in those days may remember quality was not the priority it is today. Pretty good was often good enough, and making the numbers always trumped quality. Gladly, that trend has not survived these past two decades.

Although quality has a long way to go, it has won many battles. Systems and standards such as the Baldrige criteria, ISO 9000, Six Sigma and lean are imperfect, but they are monuments of the great changes that have been made since those old factory days. “Almost is good enough” is no longer accepted as it was in the past.

After nine months of making myself into a real pain, the department manager offered me a promotion. He told me there was an opening in the quality lab. Of course, I jumped at the offer before knowing what the new job entailed. This began a lifelong passion for learning and developing.

Now, 20-plus years later, I realize working in quality has sculpted my personal identity. I think in the terms of a quality professional everyday. I try to obtain objective data before judging people and organizations I deal with. The science of quality has given me the ability to weigh facts and question the gauge with which I measure the world. My wife has been with me for 23 years. I like to think part of the reason for my happy marriage is that I have learned to listen to her side of disagreements (most of the time). My perception does not have an acceptable gage repeatability and reproducibility and is therefore flawed.

Quality has allowed me to travel all over this great country and see many different factories and meet the people who are the heart of this nation. In 1992, I met W. Edwards Deming and was inspired to continue with this crazy and fabulous profession. I think his passion for quality was infectious—I was infected by it and have never regretted the path.

On that day in 1985 when I was offered my first position in quality, I asked my boss why I was selected for the promotion. I guess I expected accolades about my excellent performance. His answer was less than I had hoped for: “Well, it was either send you to the quality lab or fire you. Ya see, perfectionists make bad machinists.”

CHARLES J. ELLIS is a quality systems manager for Numatics Actuator Corp. in Mount Pleasant, TN. He is a member of ASQ and a certified quality technician and manager.

This is a humorous story. I am a young Quality Engineer and I am definately familiar with "absorbing the words as though they were scripture" and then "not accept anything other than perfect".
Nice story to read. It carried forth a familiar feeling.
--Luz Diaz, 03-14-2008

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