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Matthew Barsalou

Quality Insider

On Lesser Gods and Devils

It’s possible to learn from anybody

Published: Thursday, July 24, 2014 - 09:27

Bruce Hamilton recently wrote about his former colleague Manny S., whom he referred to as a “Lesser God.” The article reminded me of my former colleague Jose P., who trained me in my first quality job after college. By that time I had read W. Edwards Deming and Philip Crosby and had learned some basic theory in college, but had never worked in the field of quality.

Jose P. was the day-shift quality technician, and I was the night-shift quality technician. Our shifts overlapped enough so he could spend some time showing me the ropes. I’m hesitant to use the word “training”; this was not sitting in a classroom and learning theory. It was pure on-the-job training, and Jose knew the job of quality technician better than anybody else in the company.

Jose knew what had to be done, when it had to be done, how it had to be done, and whom to talk with to get things done. What he often didn't know was why we did the things we did. Often he would show me how to do something, then I would explain to him the reason we were doing it. Thanks to Jose, over time, I was able to put theory—what I had learned in college—into practice.

We were a great team but came from completely different backgrounds. I served two enlistments in the U.S. Army as well as some time in the National Guard while I went to college; he served time in the county jail. I don’t know the reasons why he was arrested, and I suspect I am much happier not knowing.

By the time I worked with Jose, he was no longer getting arrested. Maybe he realized he was better at quality than at crime after being sentenced 17 times. Once he almost earned a general equivalency degree (GED) during one of his incarcerations but was released from jail before test day. He eventually earned his GED while I worked with him. I still recall explaining geometry to him; he had a side job doing roofs and could do the calculations when he needed to figure out how many shingles were needed, but had not made the connection between applied geometry and the GED exam. He was good at training and also easy to train. I suspect nobody had ever tried to really teach him when he was younger.

I learned a lot from Jose, from how to fill out and print a material reject tag, and how to enter test data into the database to how to perform vacuum mass spectrometry on steels. I probably could have learned those things without Jose’s help, but it would have taken me much longer.

But I learned other lessons that I might never have learned if I hadn’t worked with Jose when I was younger. I’ve learned that it is possible to learn from anybody. That has been a valuable lesson during my career in quality. I’ve learned that production workers are an excellent source of production process information, and I will never make the mistake of assuming that somebody can’t teach me something new just because they're not an engineer or don’t have a degree.

From Jose’s situation I also learned that if a student fails to learn, it may actually be the teacher’s fault. I believe his teachers assumed he couldn't learn— from Jose I learned not to make that mistake with anybody. If I'm conducting training and somebody has difficulties following me, I change what I'm doing. I find a different way to explain things or use a different example. I don’t just repeat myself over and over and then blame my trainee.

With his past I doubt anybody would call Jose a lesser god, but his influence will be felt throughout the rest of my career because of the things I learned from him. Both W. Edwards Deming and Kaoru Ishikawa encourage managers to listen to the people on the production line. Sound advice from the gurus, but it was not a guru who taught me that lesson. It was a quality technician named Jose P.

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About The Author

Matthew Barsalou’s picture

Matthew Barsalou

Matthew Barsalou is a statistical problem resolution master black belt at BorgWarner Turbo Systems Engineering GmbH. He is an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt, quality engineer, and quality technician; a TÜV-certified quality manager, quality management representative, and quality auditor; and a Smarter Solutions-certified lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt. He has a bachelor’s degree in industrial sciences, and master’s degrees in engineering, business administration, and liberal studies with emphasis in international business. Barsalou is author of Root Cause Analysis, Statistics for Six Sigma Black Belts, The ASQ Pocket Guide to Statistics for Six Sigma Black Belts, and The Quality Improvement Field Guide.