It’s easy to think of quality as a binary attribute: either good or bad, right or wrong, compliant or non-compliant, white or black. In a digital world, where computers work with 1’s and 0’s that may be a logical extension of thought.
The quality world is entranced by ISO9001 and certification, almost essential in western business, and it employs many in compliance auditing. Even first and second party audits focus on compliance. Inspection is frequently reduced to pass or fail judgements. But is that the only way to think, or even the best way?
How often does inspection of a component give the full picture. Mass production certainly needs standards and we need to ensure that a nut of size “x” will fit a bolt of size “x”, though how precisely is rarely a prime consideration for most common uses. Think now, however, of one being used near the limit of material properties – tolerances and fit take on a new significance. When I first graduated and became a Project Engineer with a well-known aero engine manufacturer I was introduced to the concept of MMC (maximum material condition); it was a standard box on the engineering drawing sheets. It had a specific application for close fitting parts but, since leaving that industry, I’ve hardly seen it mentioned, let alone used. It recognises variation – something central to Deming’s thinking. I find Deming frequently mentioned when discussing management ideas but much less often when considering hardware or services. Six-sigma programmes certainly consider variation but that’s still too often in the context of pass/fail – and reducing the number of fails to insignificant levels.
What we need to recognise is that we don’t live in a digital world, despite the media and ICT. Real stuff has infinite variation (“infinite” insofar as is relevant to my argument, that is) so let’s start working with that variation than against it. Not only would Deming be pleased but so, also, will environmentalists because we should see less waste. Rather than reject a component because it’s outwith the specification for this application, find an application it will suit. That takes time, of course. It’s much quicker to reject and, often, cheaper in the short term – but short-term thinking is another Deming concern.
My attic is full of stuff from my past, most of which will probably never be of use again. My wife wants to give it a good clear out. But I learned from my father: something may no longer work and not do what we want now but it’s not all broken – some parts may become useful when something else breaks down.
Black and white thinking is easy – but we lose a lot by not seeing the shades of grey in between…