Quality on the Front Lines

by Joseph P. Furr

"Always remain in a rigid state of flexibility” is the one thing about quality that has definitely stuck with me all these years. After checking the internet and finding no information on who might have coined that phrase, I shall claim it as mine.

Quality started for me in the Air Force. At the tender age of 22 I found myself in training in Illinois, learning the business of being an aircraft maintenance officer.

I found two things especially interesting. The first was that everyone had to sign for the work they did, and someone had to countersign it as inspected. The more serious the maintenance, the higher the certified skill level of the person doing the countersign had to be.

Second was the quality task evaluation. Each maintenance officer had to undergo formal evaluations of his or her ability to perform tasks. This was done by a third-party quality control professional.

I thought the Air Force was quite clever in requiring its workers to claim responsibility for their work by signing for it and having someone inspect it. I likened it to the television commercials for Hanes, in which all products had to pass Inspector 12. The task evaluations were also clever. Just think—they train people, and then actually expect them to demonstrate proficiency before being allowed to perform the task unsupervised.

The Three T’s

I decided then and there to make training, tech data and tools my credo for quality maintenance. I called it the “three T’s” or “T cubed.”

As an Air Force captain I found myself supervising 150 enlisted people performing maintenance 24/7. My three T’s served me well.

Training encompassed both technical and administrative learning. My first goal was to ensure all my people received the best and most modern training to perform the exacting maintenance tasks required to keep state-of-the-art fighter, bomber and tanker aircraft flying and fighting. My second goal was to provide administrative training so each individual could grow into the management ranks.

Tech data refers to the technical manuals that tell specifically how to perform a task. My objectives here were to ensure technical manuals were being used and were always the most current. Sound familiar? Document control was difficult at best.

After training people who had demonstrated proficiency using current task documents, I then needed to provide them the actual tools to do the job. My goal was to give them the right tool for the job rather than make them do what we all do at home—if a screwdriver isn’t available, we use a butter knife or fingernail clipper. Don’t laugh—we’ve all done it.

I eventually had trained and proficient people using the right tools and task documents performing maintenance on state-of-the-art aircraft. They were signing for their work, and others were countersigning that it had been inspected. Then why did an aircraft’s canopy pop open at an altitude of 10,000 feet, forcing the pilot to abort the flight and do an emergency landing?

You guessed it—the human factor. As it turned out, the task document to secure the canopy shut was incorrect. But that didn’t matter, because it wasn’t used anyway. The work was signed for, and the inspection was countersigned—but the inspection was not performed. We call that “pencil whipping.” It’s difficult to inspect things when time is short, pressure is on to get the product out the door, and the inspector doesn’t get out of the truck.

Civilian Life

After those exciting days of fast-paced military operations all over the world, I had the opportunity to attend one of the last seminars W. Edwards Deming taught about quality. Some of his 14 points remain with me to this day.

After retiring from the military, I found my niche in the quality profession. There were and still are many companies that need quality systems written, stuff inspected and paperwork done.

From writing and implementing a quality system from scratch for a chair company to bidding a $3.2 million postal contract to qualifying a third tier Honda of America supplier as an original equipment manufacturer supplier to Harley Davidson, that rigid state of flexibility seems to be a recurring theme for me. The human factor thing wanders in as well.

Now, some 34 years later, I find myself still in the quality profession. Companies still focus on making money. Chief executives still focus on making money. Quality professionals are still looking for money to do the job right, and real quality depends on the folks on the front lines, where the shoes meet the floor and hands get dirty.

Let’s hear it for the human factor, also known as the workforce. They are truly on the front lines of quality.

JOSEPH P. FURR is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and is currently the quality, safety and environmental manager for Akima Corp. at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. He has a master’s degree in public administration from Troy State University in Troy, AL. Furr is a senior member of ASQ.

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