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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

Bridge Ices Before Road

Sometimes it’s critical to get an outside perspective on your problem

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - 09:03

For work purposes, I first made my way to the United States on a short business trip in October 2007. I remember it vividly. I was not long married, and my boss was putting me on the long haul into Texas and Louisiana.

Fresh in my mind was the memory of the unusually warm day in Scotland the week before, right splat in the middle of October. Surprisingly, the temperature had risen to a heavenly 17° Celsius (or 70° Fahrenheit) on our wedding day. It was so bright and warm that our photographer convinced us to take our photos on the beach, where children ran up to the newly titled Mrs. N. with ice-cream cones in their hands. This was unusual for Scotland, where we’re doomed to a climate that changes for the worse every 20 minutes. My mother will reference this at times as “soup weather,” i.e., so cold and terrible, the only remedy is eating soup to keep warm.

A few days after the wedding festivities, with the weather worsening in Scotland, I stepped off the plane into the subtropical climate of the southern United States. I can only compare it to being slapped in the face with a hot, damp sponge. The heat and humidity smothered me. I couldn’t bear it. Overdressed for such an environment, I did what most Scotsmen do in such circumstances: stripped down to my underwear. (Apologies for the mental image that conjures.) Who would have thought that, almost exactly four years later, I’d be living with that climate daily and facing the real horror of August heat and humidity in Louisiana?

Anyway, once we’d moved to Louisiana, I couldn’t help noticing an intriguing sign that kept cropping up as I traveled across Texas and Louisiana: “Bridge Ices Before Road” it warned ominously. As a northern-dwelling Brit, I laughed at such a notion in that part of the world. Ice existed only in my drinks, never outdoors; how could it in such a climate? And if it ever did become a little frosty, why did I need to be reminded of this? I grew up driving in snow and ice, and people simply put salt or sand down to reduce any road risks. There was no need to make such a fuss about it.

More than once I approached my colleagues and asked them about this ridiculous sign. They would give me a look that said, “Why is this strange-looking and -sounding man asking about something so obvious?” Then they would tell me, unsurprisingly, that the bridge surface would ice—wait for it—before the road would.

Now, I know that roads, regardless of where they are, will ice up when it gets cold enough. And I know you must change your driving style in winter. But I couldn’t fathom that it could get that cold in Louisiana, in the same way my colleagues couldn’t fathom that, when the time was right, they should change to winter tires on their cars.

This is a benefit of difference. Different experiences or being an outsider can bring about varying and often useful perspectives when looking at a problem.

Two years into our American dream, I experienced the extreme drop in mercury and resulting ice on the car windows in the morning. For most people in Louisiana, this signifies the start of “gumbo weather,” when it gets so cold that Cajuns eat gumbo to heat themselves up. Also, cars start falling off the roads when drivers hit a patch of frost. For me, it was a nice reminder of how much I like the crispness of frost-laden air and temperatures at the point where bridges do ice before the roads.

A couple of hours into that chilly day, colleagues began congregating outside my office. Seeing their hoods over their heads (and tucked neatly into their hard hats), I was expecting to hear, “It’s too cold; can we go home?” Instead, I was told that, “The tools aren’t testing; we keep seeing leaks.”

Our company builds fantastically technical equipment to support our clients. It’s complex in its assembly and requires subsequent testing and verification to ensure success when it’s deployed in an oil and gas well. One of these tests is in essence a “leak” test, and due to my colleagues’ expert skills, the quality of our engineering, and the ability of our suppliers, we have a very high success rate of equipment that doesn’t leak—except on this arctic Cajun day.

I don’t know why it came to mind then, but suddenly I was remembering sitting on the floor in a group at school and being told about the Challenger space shuttle disaster. I asked my now-thawed colleagues if the leaks were at the O-ring connections. Startled, they looked at each other and nodded. Then they wanted to know how I knew that small detail without being there and seeing the leak.

It was just a guess based on my different experience. Most of the men standing there were born long after the space shuttle disaster, so they really couldn’t relate to the Challenger incident, although they connected with the story of the O-rings and the cold morning of the launch. (There’s a great video of physicist Richard Feynman explaining the technicalities of the O-ring problem better than I can, and if you’re interested in learning about them, I recommend it.)

However, I’m sure my subconscious didn’t offer the memory of the Challenger disaster for this reason. All I had was a theory based on an unrelated industry, not an explanation about the test that failed at my workplace. What was more interesting to me was that I, an outsider to my colleagues’ process, was being asked about a problem, and as someone with different experiences, I was able to offer an alternative view that could bring value to finding a solution.

Feynman also was an outsider during the space shuttle investigation that eventually produced the “Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.” His approach was based on his different experiences. He was grounded in explaining complex physics in beautifully simple terms, and he wasn’t constrained by some interconnecting tie that the other commissioners had to NASA—a tie that would prevent them from realizing the difficult and painful root causes of the accident. It was Feynman who followed the trail to the true root cause, which was ultimately management failure.

In our role as quality professionals, we may be drawn into conducting or even leading investigations. Selecting your team is key to success, so the next time you must lead an investigation, find someone from a different department to be part of your team. This isn’t about finding someone who thinks differently, but rather one who is unfamiliar with your process or the problem under investigation. Give the person the space and courtesy to ask questions, and answer them in a way that can be easily understood. You may find that an outsider can be an ally who offers surprising insights.

A note on Feynman and quality

In his book, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), Feynman offers some insight into what quality, or the lack of it, is. In his “Gumshoes” chapter, he talks about meeting the managers and workers of the factory where the space shuttle was produced. He discussed the O-ring problem with the assembly workers, and they made suggestions for improvements.

“Those suggestions weren’t very good, but the point is, the workers were thinking,” writes Feynman. “I got the impression that they were not undisciplined: They were very interested in what they were doing, but they weren’t being given much encouragement. Nobody was paying much attention to them. It was remarkable that their morale was as high as it was under the circumstances.”

I find that fascinating. There were the workers, proud of their work and wanting to do to a quality job, but prevented from doing so by their management. Perhaps if the factory had a different culture, one focused on achieving quality, changes would have been made to a safety-critical feature, and lives would have been saved. I recognize that viewing life through hindsight is always easier than the problems faced in the moment. However, hindsight is useful in preventing repeat mistakes.

Feynman’s book goes into other elements of quality or the lack of it, which led to the Challenger disaster. Should you have the time, use Deming’s 14 Points as a checklist when reading Feynman’s book. It’s interesting to note whether NASA or its suppliers did or didn’t take these points into consideration. The results may surprise you. For Feynman, reading the warning signs leading up to the Challenger accident was as plain and simple as seeing a sign stating “Bridge Ices Before Road.”


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.



Great article Paul!!