Prior to my retirement, my company adopted a program called Six Sigma which was designed to improve manufacturing and business processes by eliminating defects. It is a rather complex system incorporating mathematics and in depth analysis. As such, specialized training was required and the resulting “experts” were dubbed “black belts”, no doubt derived from the top level one can attain in the martial arts. Their job was to find defects and fix them. As the program progressed, the training was increased to involve most levels of management who often became “green belts. Soon, there were black and green belts everywhere, looking at everything from manufacturing to distribution, to sales. No one was immune to having a black belt sitting in their office.
I bring this up because a recently saw a story that brought a smile to my lips and reminded me of these very serious men and women that sought to bring excellence to everything they touched. It went like this.
There was a large company that manufactured toothpaste. However, it seemed that, during the packaging process, there was a problem in that not every box contained a tube. Soon, wholesale customers were complaining about how often a shipment would contain several boxes that did not contain a tube of toothpaste. Management immediately deployed a team of engineers to evaluate and fix the problem.
The engineers converged on the production line and did in depth analysis, measuring every step of the process. After much brainstorming, and several months, they recommended to management that they incorporate a scale into the packaging line that would weigh each container as it passed over it. If a box was too light to contain a tube of toothpaste, the line would stop and an attendant would remove the suspect product and start the line up again. They also recommended that a counter be incorporated so that reports could be printed that measured the number of defects so that the results could be confirmed.
Management signed off on the recommendations and the considerable expense of incorporating the fixes. Initially, everything went well and the reports did indeed show that the defect was decreasing. But after a while, the reports began to indicate zero defects. While they were very pleased, they were also very curious how they could have attained perfection, so VP of Manufacturing decided to visit the factory floor. While walking down the line, he noticed a large fan sitting next to the line, and opposite it on the far side of the line, sat a large box. In as much as the factory floor was climate controlled, he called the foreman over and inquired as to the reason for the fan. The foreman said that the guy who was assigned to removing the defective boxes and restarting the line got tired of running over and correcting the problem. So he set up the fan to blow the empties into a large box before they reached the scales.
I know of an employee that retired from my company after thirty years working on a production line. At his retirement party he said “All these years you have been paying for my hands when you could have had my head for free”. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?