QUALITY IN THE FIRST PERSON
Are you haunted by an unsolved problem you can’t leave in the past?
by William D. Taylor III
Most quality professionals have a number of stories on their memory shelves about projects that went well, maybe even by the book. Tucked away, there may be a tale or two about a project that was successful, even if it seemed to require a little luck to complete.
Then, there are the stories we want to forget. No matter what we do, they fall off the shelf and hit us at unexpected moments. Perhaps it’s a story about a problem we never found the root cause for. If we did find the root cause, maybe we couldn’t figure out a solution to correct it. These are the projects that haunt us—sometimes throughout our entire career.
We don’t mention these stories during presentations showcasing how quality tools work and how they promise ever finer quality at a low cost. These are the projects we don’t want to admit we worked on. I have a few experiences myself. For the sake of cathartic storytelling, I would like to share one with you.
This story takes place early in my career, years before the NBC White Paper1 "If Japan Can…Why Can’t We?" that introduced many of us to W. Edwards Deming and the concept of quality improvement. I was a young supervisor at a textiles factory and fly-shuttle looms were still used to make fabric. The main office had a window overlooking weave room operations. Just outside the office was loom 301, which occasionally threw its shuttle out. Sometimes, the airborne shuttle would hit the office’s window and shatter it. Supervisors before me dealt with the same problem. No one was able to correct it.
I became responsible for loom maintenance. My job was to make sure the equipment was capable of producing products that met customer requirements. While loom 301’s problem didn’t impact the quality of the fabric it wove, one of my primary objectives was to fix it.
I tried everything. I replaced almost every part on the loom, large and small. I aligned and leveled it myself. I consulted with experts at other plants and sought advice from the loom manufacturer.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was looking for the root cause. I never found it. I kept track of problems using primitive statistical analysis, not really knowing what I was doing. But no matter what I did, the loom continued to hurl shuttles and break the window.
One night, after the first shift ended and I was getting ready to go home, a darn shuttle ejected from the machine, crashed through the office’s window and landed in my lap. A shop mechanic was standing in the office, laughing hysterically. He jokingly suggested, "Why don’t you just put bulletproof glass in that window? You’re never going to fix that loom."
That’s just what we did. We went to the shop, took a sheet of half-inch Plexiglas, cut it to size and installed it that night. While I no longer had to worry about dodging shuttles, I never fixed the loom. By the early 1970s, new equipment that used a jet of water or air replaced the old fly-shuttle looms.
If I was able to go back in time, I would like to think that the quality engineering skills I’ve picked up over the years would allow me to fix the loom. But, to this day, I am not sure if I could. As quality professionals, we pride ourselves on our ability to get to the root cause of any problem and correct it. To our credit, we usually have numerous success stories. But I wonder how many of us have a loom 301 somewhere in a closet that we don’t like to talk about but can’t forget?
- "If Japan Can…Why Can’t We?" was an American television episode broadcast by NBC News as part of the show NBC White Paper on June 24, 1980. The episode is often credited with beginning the quality revolution in the United States.
William D. Taylor III is an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina’s Union campus. He earned his MBA from Jacksonville State University in Alabama. Taylor is an ASQ-certified quality engineer and a senior member of ASQ.