Monday, October 31, 2011

Q.A. as a living process

There's a good chance that the car sitting in your driveway owes a lot to W. Edwards Deming. Deming was an American statistician largely responsible for the overhaul of Japanese industry from 1950 onwards. He helped to shift the perception that the Japanese were only capable of producing rubbish to the realisation of American car manufacturers that Japan had stolen the limelight from Detroit.

I've travelled in several American / Australian cars in recent times, and while it is probably inflammatory and a broad generalisation, my experiences lead me to the perception that Americans and Aussies are very capable of producing crap. Once I got onto Japanese cars, I never looked back.

Deming came to represent a whole philosophy of manufacturing. One element I note today is his belief that Q.A. is best offered as a living process. That is, instead of pouring resources into paying for exhaustive inspections at the end of a production process (with a range of acceptable tolerances), build in continuous improvement ('kaizen') into each process and verify quality improvements through statistical sampling.

Deming believed that while cost of manufacturing went down, quality and production could go up. How? Very simple: careful observation of what happens in planning and production, coupled with a culture of 'every participant is a designer', allows the sources of problems to be identified and corrected early in the process. When your only means of catching non-performance is the factory loading dock, then correcting mistakes becomes costly.

Most processes surrounding quality could be put right if people were given the space to resolve them. Deming saw the biggest problem here as management, not the people doing the actual work of manufacturing. These were cultural problems that needed to be resolved through a fresh approach to managing people, their willingness to work well, and their ability to do so. If you got the question of 'people' sorted out, then the 'quality' question had the space it needed to resolve.

Companies like Toyota have inculturated Deming's whole approach. (He was emphatic that for his thinking to work, his whole system had to be adopted, as it is a package.) And as a result we have better cars, microwaves, televisions.

While Deming was widely known and respected in Japan, he did not come into prominence in his home country until he was in his 80's. Once Americans realised what he had done for Japan, he quickly became flavour of the month, and began running 4-day workshops all over America and the world. He wrote books, he consulted to large companies, he supervised post-graduate students.

He continued to do this until his death at age 93. Interestingly, he never felt that his philosophy was embraced in his home country to the extent it had been in Japan. People wanted to 'cherry pick' his methods.

And that is why I can tell within 20 seconds of the driving experience that a car is a Chrysler and not a Subaru. When a door lining falls off (true story) then it is confirmed.

For an overview of Deming's life and his thinking, you'll probably enjoy this paper.

No comments: