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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

The Best Investigation Technique

Part of our job is teaching others to solve quality issues together

Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 13:04

During the the mid-1980s, two great schools of investigation were put up against each other. Each were immensely popular, and still are today, with fans firmly seated in one methodology or the other. One school was led by a disheveled, cigar-smoking character. The other had a lady more akin to your favorite, mild-mannered auntie at the helm. Both fought for the No. 1 spot.


I can see them in my mind’s eye, duking it out. The scene is Madison Square Garden, complete with overexcited commentators:

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Madison Square Garden. I’m Ken Bhan, your commentator tonight. With me ringside is Jed Okra.”

“Thanks, Ken. What a magnificent setting for this slightly different martial arts event.”

“That’s right, Jed. In just a moment we’ll be seeing two warriors, two mighty names in the business, duking it out.”

At this point I imagine the lights dimming. I hear the crowd chanting and loud music blaring. The gladiators, fighting for the honor of their investigative techniques, are walking to the center of the ring. And there’s Bruce Buffer waiting to meet them and announce the fight.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, let’s get ready to RUMBLLLLLLLLLLLLLE!”

The crows erupts. In the distance, I hear the muffled ring of a telephone.

“In the blue corner,” continues Buffer as the crowd settles down, “fighting from the West Coast, from Los Angeleeeese, is your how-do-you-catch ’em champion, Lieutenant Columboooo!”

The crowd grows frantic, cheering and shouting. I hear some elements booing. And that phone is still ringing.

“And in the red corner, long-time author and advocate of the whodunit, Jessicaaaaaa Fletcher!”

“What a crowd, Ken, Have you ever heard such a cheer?”

“The waiting is over now, Jed, it’s Columbo vs. Murder She Wrote, and I can’t wait to see which prevails.”

The starting bell sounds.

“Look at Columbo, straight at Jessica like a punishing kangaroo. He’s hit her with a surprise left hook!”

“That’s got to hurt, Ken. I think a low-flying tooth just missed me.”

The ringing of the phone is now louder than ever.

“Ooooh, Jed, what a comeback! That little lady just put her knee through his…”

“Ken, Columbo is down! Ouch, that would make any grown man cry.”

“My advice, Jed, is not to hold them but to count them!”

The ringing phone has snapped me out of my daydream. I’m back in a Saturday morning, in my man cave, also known as the office in my apartment. The computer screen shows the face of an old quality friend from Scotland, trying to reach me via Skype.

“Afternoon, Paul…”

I’ve always been bit of a daydreamer. That morning I’d been preparing for my friend’s call. He’d recently changed employers, to a small but fast-growing business. He’s perfect for this company; his tenacity and passion will help mature the business. However, he’s always looking to get a second opinion on his thoughts before taking any action. I’d received an e-mail from him earlier in the week. It arrived after 6 p.m. from Scotland, which is six hours ahead, so that meant my friend was in dire need of help. Due to the company’s multiple quality issues and his recent arrival as the quality assurance manager, two of the company’s customers had pounced on him.

His business is a small engineering company that services a handful of customers—a complete opposite of where my friend and I had trained and worked together. Recent audits had highlighted the need for the business to adopt and investigation techniques to improve the quality of what the supplier was receiving. (Why is it necessary, if your supplier has quality issues, to first resort to an audit?)

What I’d gathered from the e-mail was that the two customers were recommending two different, branded, investigation techniques. One was a variation of 5 Whys, the other a method of cause-and-effect analysis. Going forward, each customer wanted its technique to be used when dealing with future quality issues. I did some research on these techniques and reviewed the books in my quality library (when I say “library,” I mean the shelves my wife has designated as “the boring business books”) to prepare some ideas to share with my friend.

Collecting my thoughts before the call, my imagination had wandered into the weird, enchanted forest in my head, where I conjured Columbo fighting with Jessica Fletcher. I guess I was visualizing the two different customers’ preferred techniques, and trying to decide which would be the better methodology. I like to visualize my challenges. I often ride the unicorn of improvement, at a galloping pace, through my place of work.

Anyway, we considered the pros and the cons of each of his customer’s techniques. We noted how each technique originated from the same core ideas. We talked about our own approaches and philosophies from our favorite quality thinkers. We concluded that his company already had a defined investigation process, which wasn’t working at that point in time.

A caring customer had audited the business and discovered that his company wasn’t following the customer’s own processes. Consequently, it was recommended to use a different approach, which from the customers’ perspective was quite effective. Repeated problems had escalated the issue, and the customer wanted to be part of future investigations. So why shouldn’t the customer recommend its preferred systems? The challenge my friend had was that a second auditor made a similar recommendation—i.e., change the investigation methodology. My friend’s boss, who was also joint owner of the company, instructed him to adopt both techniques, and it had to be done yesterday.

What my friend didn’t realize was that I was double-, or rather, triple-teaming him with Lt. Columbo and Jessica Fletcher subtly helping the investigation. I think I even unleashed the question, “Just one more thing…”

My friend’s business was going through some very uncomfortable growing pains. Due to rapid growth and the niche that his new employer had created, issues were being investigated. However, due to limited resources, the team at his new workplace didn’t have adequate “time” or “coaching” to test and verify the effectiveness of the actions. In essence it was the immediate, rather than the true root cause that was being addressed.

Of course, he knew this already. I think he just wanted someone to ask logical questions to test his ideas. He has been conditioned to think like this from when we worked together in a much larger and mature organization.

The issue wasn’t really his boss asking him to choose one technique over another, and it wasn’t the customer trying to flex some powerful muscle. It was his inexperience in recognizing that there was a need to mentor the organization’s leadership in solving quality issues by consensus. He and I are fortunate in our past; the leaders at our previous company would seriously and proactively address issues. This was the first time he realized his role and importance in developing the quality culture at his new workplace.

I imagine our next call will be about the cultural changes on the path to excellence he’s now initiated. And I expect my imagination will take me beforehand to distant realms, fighting armies of saber-toothed squirrels with W. Edwards Deming and Bruce Lee by my side.


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.