“Stop!” Our shop’s trade-school intern froze in mid-swing. A 5-lb hammer clutched in his right hand, he was attempting to disassemble a spindle unit from a late model Mazda. More than likely, our newbie would have ruined the spindle in the process. I suggested he would be better served using a bearing puller. That was Monday.
“What are you doing?” Tuesday, I arrived at the shop greeted by the sight of our intern struggling to use the bearing puller on a king pin assembly. To no avail. I grabbed the 5-lb hammer and administered half a dozen strategically placed blows. The assembly came apart. “The right tool for the job, my friend.”
Although this is a simple anecdote, it is a valid object lesson to be applied to processes at large.
I have no clue where the idea that one quality process tool is better than another came from, but I believe it has fueled the fire of a “silver bullet” mentality that excludes many useful tools and too often boxes folks into, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
In “Why I Wish I Got My Black Belt from Hong Kong Airlines,” Quality Digest columnist Paul Naysmith writes, “The instructors were excellent, and often I was reminded that I was going to learn more than 140 tools and techniques during the course.... After my [Six Sigma] training, though, I found that I favored techniques that were simple and effective.” My own personal toolbox is much the same. No Six Sigma tools, but dozens of screwdrivers on the right-hand side, three drawers down. Like Naysmith, when I need a tool I usually reach for an old favorite, but when I need a wrench, I don’t whip out my socket set just because it’s new and shiny and I like the way it sounds when I use it.
Back at the shop there were times I wound up surrounded by a multitude of tools pulled from my toolbox as needed for each different step in the repair process. If a passing mechanic asked, “Are you done yet?” I would reply, “I must not be, I don’t have all my tools out yet.” A mildly amusing joke, but I sure was glad to have lots of different tools at my disposal. The right tool for each step of the process. Anyone who has ever used a crescent wrench as a hammer knows exactly what I mean.
I also find the amalgamation of lean and Six Sigma perplexing. It makes me think of an infomercial that features a “screwdriver/tape measure” or a “digital caliper/hammer” combo. Although each tool may be useful in upping the quality quotient of your process, the twain are not the same. Two different tools useful for two different issues. The right tool for the job.
When I moved into middle management positions, I encountered situations with upper management that were absurdly similar to the trade-school newbie, just with a different set of tools.
At a major motor-home production plant on the West Coast, the production manager (PM) ruled from on high. Literally. His office was on the second floor of the plant and except for the “family appreciation day” tour, I don’t believe he set foot on the shop floor once during the five years that I was there. It didn’t bother me until his quality control team began requesting data in order to graph a recent spate of motor home auxiliary-generator malfunctions. It was his plan to use charts to determine the cause of the problem.
You see, in an effort to reduce fuel consumption at the plant, the PM had instructed the receiving department to put no more than three gallons of fuel in the motor home’s fuel tank. All well and good except for the fact that the motor homes’ fuel system would not allow the auxiliary generator to run unless there was five gallons of fuel in the tank.
The Appliance department knew this. The Final Finish department knew this. It had been explained to the QC team leader, but all the team leader could do was turn his palms upward and shake his head, “The boss wants to use charts.”
It took four weeks and plenty of overtime for the PM to come to the conclusion that we should put five gallons of fuel in the tank. In this case, our PM insisted on using charts when MBWA or SDWTs would have been more useful tools.
In another instance, I was head of maintenance at a 5,000-acre orchard. We had more than 200 pieces of equipment, including tractors, implements, harvesters, irrigation pumps, semi-trucks, and a 1950 Ford N tractor. We had three mechanics on the crew to handle repairs, preventive maintenance, and fabrication. It was more triage than maintenance. Lean to the point of starvation. Apparently, lean was the only tool in the general manager’s toolbox.
Root cause analysis could have nipped compounding problems in the bud. Six Sigma practices could have cut recurring problems drastically. I would have settled for two or three sigma, but graphing maintenance charts was as highly looked upon as me coming to work in a skirt.
I suppose we all have an “old favorite” in our quality process tool box. A tool that solves a good percentage of the problems we encounter. We must, however, remember to use the right tool for the job at hand.
If a new area of operation is being set up or an old one being overhauled, 5S is a good place to start.
If a new process is being designed, use design for Six Sigma.
If an old process is being reviewed or monitored, Six Sigma could do the trick.
If an operation is being evaluated for wasteful processes or practices, you might use lean tools.
There is no one best tool. No matter what area of business we seek to improve, we must avoid the silver bullet mentality in favor of a toolbox approach. Learn the basics of several key quality improvement methods and then reach for the one that best serves the purpose in any given situation.
Use the right tool for the job.
Then again, if you just need a little more horsepower, go ahead and grab the 5-lb hammer.