SPC: Not Just for Geeks

by Katrina Kruger

I fell into the quality field the old fashioned way: I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I was working in Ontario at Mission Plastics-North, a division of Peterson Manufacturing, a custom injection molding manufacturer and automotive industry supplier. At the time, computers were proving to be important tools in manufacturing, and I was one of the few people in the plant who knew how—or even wanted—to operate one.

I accepted an administrative position in the quality control department operating the department’s lone computer. The rest, as they say, is history, and it has been an absolute blast.

I was very fortunate to have a quality assurance (QA) manager who was incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about the field of quality tools. I ended up respecting and admiring this man tremendously. I owe my quality career to him.

My QA manager was relentless in his attempts to have me join ASQ. I was just the department clerk who did data entry. I truly thought he wanted me to join just so he could have someone to go with him to the meetings.

What I didn’t know was this man saw something in me I couldn’t see for myself and he wanted to expose me to opportunities. I finally gave in and joined, and we were off to attend my first section meeting. I remember as if it was yesterday…

My manager and I walked into the meeting room, and immediately my life started flashing in front of me. I was surrounded by middle-aged men, 85% of whom (yes, that is a statistically valid analysis) had pocket protectors, wore blue wrinkled business suits and either had gray hair, were balding or were completely bald. The only thing missing was someone with masking tape on the bridge of his eyeglasses.

I understood why my manager en-joyed these meetings—he fit right in. However, I was completely out of place. Not only was I the only woman, I also was the youngest. Why was my manager so insistent that I attend this meeting?

As the meeting got under way, I stayed as close as humanly possibly to his side without seeming obviously scared out of my mind.

I knew quality wasn’t going to be the career for me. I didn’t want to turn into some card carrying, pocket protector using, bald, business suit wearing droid. No way, not me. Where was the door? My manager must have sensed my uneasiness; it was probably the uncontrollable nervous twitch I developed that gave it away. He pulled me off to the side and said:

“Look, quality is like a religion—either you believe in it, or you don’t. But you have to understand the basic principles to be successful. Just listen to the speaker, and if you don’t learn anything, I will give you tomorrow off, with pay.”

We returned to our table just in time to hear the announcement that the night’s topic was statistical process control (SPC). Great, I can’t even balance my own checkbook. I had that day off in the bag—or so I thought.

Initially, I paid no attention to the guest speaker as he began the presentation. I was hearing strange terms like process capability, variance, standard deviation and something about a bell-shaped curve.

That was all foreign to me. I was simply concentrating on my breathing so I wouldn’t pass out, fearing someone in this group might give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Then I saw the graphs. Now, I by no means want to equate this with the birth of a child, but it was monumental all the same. I understood very quickly how to interpret them.

Like most people, I can digest a visual representation much more easily than a spreadsheet full of numbers. Graphs in conjunction with numerical summaries are a powerful tool for analyzing processes. I immediately saw how SPC used to its fullest potential can reduce scrap and rework while improving the overall quality of products.

That two-hour presentation turned into a lifelong passion to analyze processes and train fellow associates in the use of SPC. It is not necessary for a successful SPC practitioner to be a mathematician or even a card carrying, pocket protector wielding droid. The excitement comes from seeing your business move into the world-class competitor arena.

I have since left my mentor and the company. I’m a quality assurance manager for Sprint/Nextel, where my SPC experience is highly sought after. No day is ever the same—it is exciting and challenging. Most important, it’s a blast showing people how SPC can improve processes, whether you’re analyzing simple widgets or complex electronic components.

For the record, I didn’t get that next day off, and over the course of my career I have managed to keep all my hair. As for hair color—well, that’s a whole other article.

KATRINA KRUGER is a quality assurance manager at Sprint in Overland Park, KS. She has an associate degree from Longview Community College in Lee’s Summit, MO. Kruger is a member of ASQ and a certified quality auditor.

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