Wednesday, 4 July 2012

An APP for that?

I was hanging a picture and needed a level to ensure that the picture was hanging correctly. I was just about the run to the garage to get the level when my daughter reminded me that I had downloaded a level App on to my iPod.
The current crop of graduates live and breathe technology. They socialize on-line, twitter, listen to music, watch their favourite programs, find their restaurants and did their homework using their mobile devices.
Innovative companies in turn are tuning in and adapting just as quickly and getting rid of their desk tops, servers and bulky boxes with cloud based computing and un-tethering their employees with mobile devices. Why own the software when you can rent it and run it as an App on a mobile device? Indeed un-tethering has an added advantage in that it no longer depends on the vulnerable fibre optic cable being accidentally severed. In April 2011, Hayastan Shakrian, a 75 year old Georgian cut a fibre optic cable while digging for copper consequently pulling the plug on 90% of the internet users in Armenia for 12 hours!
What is an App? An App is a piece of software that’s downloaded onto a mobile device such as a mobile phone or tablet computer. It integrates with the device’s features such as the videos and or sound and works on the device’s operating system e.g. Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android.
In the implementation of a company wide Quality Management System (QMS), it occurred to me that the reason most companies have such a hard time getting it right is that they are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. They view the QMS as another function within the organization. The Quality Department is viewed as another functional department like Finance, Product Development, Marketing, Warehousing, and Manufacturing etc. I view the QMS as the operating system (OS) through which the Apps work. In this analogy the Apps are the products and the QMS is the operating systems that makes it possible to offer the products with predictable and consistent performance specifications. Once you get the OS right, its simply a question of developing and designing the App to work on in. Similarly, once you get the QMS right, implementing such quality practices as Quality by Design, you design and develop your product to meet the criteria specified in your quality policies and procedures.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Two Wongs ……

I was watching television last night when one of those inane commercials for air fresheners came on. My family and I have always laughed at these commercials because if you don’t like the way your house smells, it seems obvious to us that rather than hide the offending odour with another scent, you should be trying to locate the source of the offending scent and remove it from the house. I wondered how many people actually go through life “covering or masking” in other areas of their life or daily existence finding the most expedient “Band-Aid” solutions without actually trying to find the root cause. I know that this occurs in organizations.
One organization I worked with employed about 100 but had over 800 Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). That was the tip of the iceberg. Each SOP had an at least on form to record the job described by the SOP or capture data generated by that operation. So there were a minimum of 800 SOPs and 800 associated forms. SOPs may be range from 3-7 pages long, the average SOP is however 4 pages. Each data capture form may be 1-5 pages long, the average form is 2 pages long. So, there were 3,200 pages of SOP and 1,600 pages of forms. In total, there were about 5,000 pages of documents or about 200 lbs (90 kg) of paper and that only accounts for the master copies! When the number of copies in circulation is added to it, this number explodes! The Document Management group literally was buried under the weight of all that paper! There was a requirement to review each document every 2 years. Assuming that they did not all come due at the same time, and are evenly spread out over the 2 years, about 33 SOPs and their associated forms were under review each month. The reviews often resulted in revisions and updating of the documents which inevitably caused a significant bottle-neck of outstanding revisions in the Document Management group - a literal paper-jam! How we managed to resolve that may be the subject of a different blog. How did things get so bad?
This organization was the victim of legacy systems, old habits, poor training, staffing turn-over and Quality Systems that were not integrated. Whenever a problem arose the easiest and quickest remedy was to write an SOP to cover the activity related to that event. No root cause analysis was performed to determine the source of the problem. This in itself created it own set of problems. The Quality department was so overwhelmed chasing all that paper that they had no time to catch their breath, sit back and go back to basics with the seven quality tools! They were hoping to get it right with two wrongs.
So you ask, “What does this have to do with the title – Two Wongs”? Once I was telling my friend whose last name is Wright about how I was told as a kid that in Chinese culture, there’s a strict taboo in two people bearing the same last name (represented by same ideogram) from marrying because they are likely descended from the same ancestor. She quipped “Two Wongs don’t make a Wright!”

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Doing the Right Thing

Recently I was involved in investigating an event where a product had failed to meet its specification. Apart from investigating and determining the root cause and the necessary corrective action, I had to help in determining if the particular batch was still considered suitable for commercial distribution. This led me to thinking about how important it is to ensure that the people in charged of Quality do not report to Production. Although they share the same company's value systems, each functional group is driven by different objectives and this may diverge in the event that the decisions made may cost significant losses in revenues. Quality professionals are charged with ensuring that we are doing the RIGHT thing.
How we make decisions when faced with these situations have always fascinated me. Depending on the motivations I believe that the same person can easily jump from one side of the fence to the other. I remember coming across the terms Cognitive Bias, Confirmation Bias and Belief Bias (a.k.a. Motivated Reasoning) in a recent discussion with a friend. Recently I read an interesting article in Mother Jones Magazine by Chris Mooney entitled The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. In particular, I found the description of a 1974 experiment where the researchers presented two fake scientific studies with detailed critiques for each; one supporting and one undermining capital punishment as a deterrent for violent crimes. Even though neither fake study were stronger that the other, interestingly, rather then move their position or opinions, advocates for each group strongly criticized the study that opposed their belief and readily accepted the one that supports their belief as more convincing.
In May 2011, the Vatican closed a 4th century Cistercian monastery in Gerusalemme, Italy. The media reports focused on performances by a nun who was once a lap dancer (surprise, surprise) as well as financial and liturgical irregularities. The monastery was associated with Rome’s high society and celebrities, operating a hotel and holding regular concerts. Much ado was made about the unconventional dances by Sister Anna Nobili which can still be viewed on YouTube. I saw the performances as a lyrical dance performed by a member of the congregation to express and celebrate her faith, but I am not a member of the church and not invested in its values. Church officials however considered this and other behavior "behavior not consonant with the monastic life".
In the final analysis, making a professional decision on what the RIGHT thing is still comes back to the declared values and beliefs of the organization and fulfilling the promises it maked to its customers. That decision has to be made after careful review of the facts and supporting evidence.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Yup, if you don’t have a QMS, well, you don’t’ have a QMS

I have often wondered why we put up with the number of consumer devices that fail to consistently perform the functions that they are designed for. The most common ones are computers that freeze up and cell phones or similar wireless devices that are "buggy" or have short battery life, computers that frequently need re-booting, software application that need patches to continue to do what they were originally designed to do. Imagine Boeing and Lockheed selling commercial jets planes need refueling every 200 km and cannot successfully complete a take off and landing without having the entire landing gear replaced every fifth cycle.
I acknowledge that the complexity of these devices have grown, and the greater complexity, the greater the probability of errors and omissions. I do however posit that the philosophy of Quality by Design (QbD) when embraced and properly implemented should show a decrease or elimination of such failures. Included in the QbD tool box should be at least one if not a series of specifications that defines what parameters the production process and the product should meet for the product to conform to the company’s definition of Quality. Its recent problems with connectivity aside, an example is how Research In Motion (RIM), the company that makes the once popular Blackberry devices acquired and used an operating system for the Blackberry Playbook that was originally designed for other mobile environments like automobiles and network equipment. Battery life was not a consideration when the software was designed for those applications. Installing it in the Blackberry Playbook meant that it was a power hog for the size of the battery. No design process or product can be perfect, hence along side these specifications should also be a risk analysis that identifies the risks and the how these are mitigated.
A quick look at the technology news reports and it appears that many of these companies rush to release their next generation of me-too devices before they actually complete their product design and testing phase. Given the high number of consumer complaints with these devices, it appears that with some of the makers of these products, either the companies do not actually have a definition of Quality that matches their consumers’ expectations, do not have a Quality Management System or arrogantly believe that the consumers simply do not have any other choices but to buy their product despite how poorly they are designed and made.
Having a Quality Management System is kind of like being pregnant, you cannot have a partial one. I am reminded of the Apple’s iPhone advertisement where you are shown an interesting array of Apps you can enjoy with your iPhone. The voice over ends with “Yup if you don’t have an iPhone, well, you don’t have an iPhone”. Similarly, “Yup, if you don’t have a Quality Management System, well, you don’t have a Quality Management System”.

Saturday, 1 October 2011


One of my favourite radio programs is Terry O'Reilly’s Age of Persuasion on CBC. One of the best episode “Do This or Die” was air in November 2008 where Terry O’Reilly discusses the advertisment written by Bob Levenson of Doyle Dane Bernbach in a TIME Inc. advertising contest. Terry regards this as a manifesto for those in marketing. The value? INTEGRITY. Written in the late 60’s, this value is as relevant today for Quality Management professionals as it is to the advertising industry, indeed to any industry.
Judge for yourself:

Is this ad some kind of trick?
No. But it could have been. And at exactly that point rests a do or die decision for American business. We in advertising, together with our clients, have all the power and skill to trick people.
Or so we think. But we’re wrong. We can’t fool any of the people any of the time. There is indeed a twelve-year-old mentality in this country; every six-year-old has one. We are a nation of smart people. And most smart people ignore most advertising because most advertising ignores smart people.
Instead we talk to each other. We debate endlessly about the medium and the message. Nonsense. In advertising, the message itself is the message. A blank page and a blank television screen are one and the same. And above all, the messages we put on those pages and on those television screens must be the truth. For if we play tricks with the truth, we die.
Now. The other side of the coin. Telling the truth about a product demands a product that’s worth telling the truth about.
Sadly, so many products aren’t. So many products don’t do anything better. Or anything different. So many don’t work quite right. Or don’t last. Or simply don’t matter.
If we also play this trick, we also die. Because advertising only helps a bad product fail faster. No donkey chases the carrot forever. He catches on. And quits.
That’s the lesson to remember. Unless we do, we die. Unless we change, the tidal wave of consumer indifference will wallop into the mountain of advertising and manufacturing drivel. That day we die.
We’ll die in our marketplace. On our shelves. In our gleaming packages of empty promises. Not with a bang. Not with a whimper. But by our own skilled hands.
Doyle Dane Bernbach Incorporated

Great Stuff!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Making Salt

One of the most challenging aspects of implementing a Quality Management System is getting the folks who have to implement the policies and procedures behind the project. Developing the policies and procedures are relatively easy compared to actually getting the organization behind it and actually putting into practice the philosophies and processes captures in the Quality Manual. Any Quality Manager will attest to encountering challenges including skepticism, reluctance to change and apathy. Unfortunately there are no magic bullets.
Successful implementation hinges on finding the right tool to motivate the organization as a whole. I have been fortunate that in many instances enlightened executive management who made it clear that organizational change was expected and necessary to achieve the corporate objectives supported my efforts. At other times, I’ve had to resort to finding ways to present the need for change as not only desirable but also a common objective. To do this I’ve often turned to iconic historical leaders who’ve inspiration change such. One such individual is a man of diminutive stature but a giant of the early civil rights movement, Mohandas Gandhi.
Gandhi was a bit of a paradox for me. While in school, I got the impression that Gandhi was the perfect clear-minded visionary leader. The accounts I read of Gandhi since painted a picture of a person who quite ordinary as a boy, experimented with his values and believes as a young man, self-contradictory in some of his actions, and down right odd with regard to some of his personable habits. In other words, in many ways, he was just as ordinary as we are. A life long vegetarian, he experimented with eating meat as a young man, he had some seemingly racist views while an activist in South Africa, after fathering four sons with his wife Kasturba he became celibate at 36 while still married but would lie naked with other women to “test his resolve”, although well known for his believe in non-violence, in his leaflet titled Appeal for Enlistment he encouraged Indians to join the British Army to “learn the use of arms with the greatest possible dispatch”. In his pursuit of his “Quit India” resolution he was single minded, tireless, inspired and brilliant. The Congress Party was initially a political movement largely composed of the upper caste and dominated by men. Given the centuries-deep social structure and customs of the times, its remarkable that Gandhi was able to create a movement that included the support of Indians that spans across the gender divide and the rigid caste system.
In bridging the gender divide, Gandhi had introduced a swadeshi policy to boycott foreign-made (largely British) goods. Part of this initiative was the exclusive use of khadi (home spun cloth) instead of British-made textiles. To promote the implementation of this practice, Gandhi invented a portable spinning wheel. This initiative not only weeded out the unwilling participants, it recruited and included women in the movement. The event however that galvanized popular support for Gandhi was the Dandi Salt March. On March 12, 1930 Gandhi set out with 79 followers from the Sabarmathi Ashram in Ahmedabad. After walking 388 km they arrived at Dandi on April 6, 1930 gaining thousands of supporters along the way. Early in its history and in its greed, the British East India Company had imposed a punitive Salt Tax supported by salt laws that forced Indians to purchase salt that they could barely afford from the Company. The making and distribution of salt by Indians was illegal except through the monopoly set up by the British Government. On reaching Dandi on the Arabian sea, Gandhi picked up the caked salt and symbolically made salt thus defying the law and proclaiming the end of the British Empire. Thousands including Gandhi were arrested but this bold defiance inspired many more to defy British rule and join his campaign.
To my colleagues charged with implementing Quality Management Systems, Happy Salt Making!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Clean Energy for a Potato Planet

I was intrigued by a 2011 report stating that China invested more on clean energy (not including nuclear power) in 2010 than any other nation. As the same time, I also recalled reading in the paper that a molecular geneticist at the University of Western Ontario, found that maternal twins were not genetically identical. While researching the role of genetics in schizophrenia, Shiva Singh has sequenced and compared the DNA make up of the parents and the identical twins. He found significant differences between the DNA make up in the identical twins thus upsetting our perception and assumption that maternal twins are identical. This led me to thinking again about the assumptions we all make when we take information at face value.
I decide to look at the information presented by the article on investments clean energy differently. I recreated the information reported in the article in a spreadsheet (Table 1). The report listed the top nations by the amount invested and pointed out that the UK had slipped out of the top 10 into thirteenth place. Personally I was pleased to see the three most populous nations China, India and the US in the top 10. I was however pleasantly surprised to see Brazil and Spain in this group. I rationalized that how much a nation invests in its energy future should be influenced by how much it consumes to support its industries and population. With the lesson on making assumptions in mind, I thought it worthwhile to look at these rankings from a different perspective. Relying solely on information easily found on the Internet to estimate the population of each of the nations on the list (excluding the unlisted 27 EU nations), when viewed from an Investment/Capita basis, the picture changes significantly (Table 2). China longer leads the pack, surpringly Canada is among the top 3 and the UK is back in the top 10 list. I suspect that if I had included the numbers for the  original 11th and 12th rank spots, India’s spot in number 10 on both charts would have been usurped. Now, if we look at industry or the nation’s productivity (GDP) into account, the picture changes quite dramatically. Again I depended on information on the Internet to calculate each nation’s GDP and the rankings tell a new story (Table 3). In all three charts, Germany emerges as a responsible citizen of the world. China and Italy also emerge as leaders in our effort to harness clean energy. Most telling however is that the two nations, US and UK who often most often lead the pack in declaring that the world must move to cleaner energy sources are at the bottom of the list.
So, the lesson learned here is that, often if we were to take any information presented on faith alone, the we may not be getting the whole picture. This reminds me of a funny quote although I cannot remember who first said it: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please”. What will they tell us next, that the earth is not flat? Indeed, it is not round, if the shape of the earth is plotted according to the gravitational pull at different places it resembles a potato in space!