QUALITY IN THE FIRST PERSON
A brother’s lesson resonates in doing jobs right the first time
by Derek Purdy
A solid work ethic is especially important for anyone in the quality profession. Because the word "quality" is in your job title, people hold your quality of work to a higher standard. This is true for big things, of course, but also for day-to-day items.
Do you follow up on tasks and track them to completion? Do you proofread emails before hitting send? Do you take the time to really understand the documents you sign? Do you show up and choose to be present in the meetings you attend? All of these things send a message about you as a quality professional, and they either bolster or tarnish your image.
I once worked in a 60-year-old manufacturing facility. In its heyday, it was state of the art, but when I arrived, it was dilapidated. Upper management was uninterested in investing in it, and that attitude was reflected in the crew’s demeanor.
One day, a maintenance worker was assigned to repair equipment on the roof. He’d been up there many times to fix the same piece of equipment, and you have to wonder why it wasn’t fixed properly the first time. On this occasion, he was in a hurry and didn’t bother to use fall protection.
He ended up accidently stepping on a fiberglass skylight and falling 30 feet before an upward-facing handle of a butterfly valve impaled his lower leg. If that valve had been mounted just a few inches lower, he’d have died instead of just being injured.
Another time, a worker was dispatched to the manufacturing floor to weld a leaking catch pan. When I went to verify the job was complete, I saw a quality of work that wouldn’t have survived the scrutiny of my eighth-grade shop teacher. Besides the hideous, wandering weld bead, there were visible holes in the seam, and the pan was still leaking. The workers who’d asked for the repair rightly complained that they still had a mess to deal with. Nonetheless, the welder had signed off on the work ticket.
Where does this attitude come from? I understood how demotivating upper management’s view could be, but these examples of laziness affected the safety of the workers themselves and their co-workers. What happened to doing a job right because it’s the right thing to do? What about taking pride in your work?
I realized some people never learned the importance of a work ethic. I learned that lesson early in life—helping my brother fix his run-down, old car.
Setting the example
When I was in grade school, my brother Craig’s first car was a clunker he borrowed from my grandfather. It was 1954 Pontiac that had been rusting in a barn. The deal was: Craig could use it as long as he liked, but he had to return it in working condition.
It didn’t take long to see he’d gotten a lousy deal. The transmission was on its last leg, the brakes were going and the car had countless other problems.
One evening, I went outside and saw it in the driveway with an extension cord snaking from the garage to the car. The 1954 Pontiacs had three-on-the-tree gearshifts (one that’s mounted to the steering column), and there was an issue with the linkage. Because the car’s inner workings always interested me, I settled in to help my brother.
After pulling out the steering wheel, we found an array of electrical wires connecting to the horn, turn signal and other areas. The wires didn’t have modern, color-coded plastic insulation. They were uniformly insulated with the same dirty, cream-colored cloth.
Because the car was a junker, I figured we’d just snip the wires and move on. Who’d care that the horn and turn signals didn’t work? Instead, my brother methodically labeled each wire on either side of the cut. Eventually, we gained access to the trouble spot; it took only minutes to fix the actual gearshift problem.
Daylight faded to full darkness, and the temperature dropped. Our T-shirts were filthy and we were shivering. I held the light as my brother put lengths of heat-shrink tubing on the wires, and painstakingly twisted a wire back together and soldered it. He slid the heat-shrink tubing over the joint and shrunk it with a hairdryer. He then slid the cloth insulation over the tubing and held it with electrical tape.
Anyone who’s tried holding a soldering gun to a free-floating wire with one hand while feeding solder with the other can understand how this felt like a never-ending chore.
I noticed the cuts in the wires were staggered to prevent the bulge created by the repairs from piling up in one spot. As a result, the wire bundle fit back down the steering column and avoided chafing during operation.
After the job was done, Craig tested the signals and horn to make sure they worked properly. It was well past 11 p.m. when we finished. I looked up and asked, "Why’d you go through all that? Grandpa doesn’t care about this car. He’s just gonna put it back in the barn. And you’re only driving it until you get something else anyway."
"Doing the right thing when someone’s watching is no big deal," Craig said. "It’s what you do when nobody’s looking that counts. This isn’t my car. Grandpa just let me borrow it. And I agreed to take care of it. That means returning it at least in the same condition as I got it. Take pride in your work; if you’re going to do a job, do it right."
I’m certain I’ve heard that advice many times before and since—if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. But having such a naked display of integrity at an early age helped drive the message home with greater force than anything I experienced afterward.
This early lesson has served me well in my personal and professional life. People tell me they appreciate knowing that if I say I’ll do something, I’ll do it—and do it well. I take pride in that and in the credibility it builds. It’s something that should be intrinsic—not just for quality professionals, but for everyone.
These same principles apply on the home front. Now that I have my own kids, I feel it’s especially important to set a positive example so I can pass the lesson on to a new generation.
Derek Purdy is a senior quality engineer at SI-Bone in San Jose, CA. He holds a master’s degree in engineering management from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. An ASQ senior member, Purdy has served as membership chair and vice chair of ASQ’s Silicon Valley Section. He is an ASQ-certified quality engineer and quality improvement associate.