Earning His Stripes

by Arthur W. Brown

It was 40 years ago, but I remember it well. Pinned to the door of my new office was a large caricature of a fierce looking Princeton Tiger (representing my alma mater) locked in a cage marked “received.”

Near the cage, but not too close, were two men. One was me, the purchasing agent. The other, the receiving inspection manager, exclaimed: “OK, you bought him—now you can inspect him.”

The posted caricature welcomed me to my new assignment as procurement quality manager at IBM’s San Jose manufacturing facility. I had been purchasing manager before this lateral transfer was made. Told it was part of the company’s “revitalization program” for middle managers, I initially viewed the move to be more punitive than educational.

After all, it was no secret that the players in the total procurement process weren’t getting along: I couldn’t stand the receiving inspection manager—and the feeling was mutual. The entire environment from engineering to manufacturing was contentious, and I was being sandwiched right in the middle.

Like bologna.

For seven years, I had been dedicated to my procurement profession. I felt I was good at my job. I was respected as an innovator: I had made many organizational and procedural changes not only at the San Jose facility but also at other IBM locations throughout the company. Outside IBM, I served as an officer in the Purchasing Managers Assn. of Northern California. One year I was even chosen as the association’s “Purchasing Man of the Year.”

As procurement quality manager, I had to learn an entirely new discipline: organize and manage a large organization of engineers, quality technicians and inspectors; interface technically with thousands of suppliers worldwide; be responsible for the conformance of all purchased parts, assemblies and services; and have a large number of our representatives working at suppliers in national and international locations.

Management let me know it viewed all the functions in the procurement process—including my function—as working independently and not as a team. Change was needed. In my new role, I was charged with becoming the point man. Management expected me to play a pivotal role to establish control over the process, bring together the individuals and build a team.

In other words, inspect the process and tame it—like that caged Princeton Tiger.

In my previous role in purchasing, I had interfaced primarily with departments like accounting and production control. In the quality role, I was now hobnobbing with all the departments of the quality function, as well as product development and testing and industrial and manufacturing engineering. Instead of focusing on the marketing arm of our suppliers, as expected in the purchasing role, now I was cultivating relationships with the technical arm of our suppliers.

I became driven in my new job (my wife would say obsessed). Every-where I turned, I could see where I really could make a difference. Quickly I realized management was right. Because of the hostile environment among all the functions, our purchasing program was in trouble:

  • Technical specifications were incomplete.
  • Many suppliers were not capable of meeting our requirements.
  • Too much reliance was placed on single sources.

I had to admit, too, that IBM did not possess the technical production and measurement and testing capability to meet our specifications, especially for the 20% of specifications we regarded as technically critical to the ultimate function of our products.

I could go on and on. The bottom line? The elements comprising procurement overhead—the real cost of supporting the purchasing content of our final product—were not fully understood or adequately weighed.

Two years after my introduction to the world of quality, I convinced management to integrate the technical support the procurement process really needed. We formed a procurement engineering function encompassing every technical activity involved in the procurement process.

The technical capabilities of our equipment, facilities and personnel were upgraded dramatically, and we became a model for other IBM locations looking to build a more effective procurement process.

In addition to this procurement process enhancement, I initiated and became the corporate coordinator for a companywide mutual assistance program. The program linked all procurement quality functions and established regional territories for each location.

Did I enjoy my time in purchasing? Yes, but it was the years I was in-volved in quality I found most stimulating.

My biggest disappointment? I never could determine how to inspect tigers. But I did appreciate the challenge that inspection had for so many similar items. All in all, I feel I earned my stripes.

ARTHUR BROWN is a graduate of Princeton University and a Senior Member of ASQ. He is a retired IBM executive. Brown has lectured at national conferences and seminars and authored articles on procurement, quality and personnel and employee motivational.

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