SPC Guide
First Word


Gregory Ferguson

Finding the Time for SPC

Do you have time to be logical?

In one episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Mary was hosting a dinner party. When her boss, Lou Grant, asked her why she was running around in a panic, she responded in exasperation: "Mr. Grant, I don't have time to be logical!" Process control studies are like that. In fact, the more urgently the study is needed, the less likely it is that there will be time for anyone to conduct it. So where can you find the time to do the study?

 I've had several mentors who have helped me with this sort of problem. William Conway, former CEO of Nashua Corp., had employees carry timers around and log our activities every time the alarms went off. Conway had once been an industrial engineer, and he raised time and motion studies to an art form.

 By doing one of Conway's studies, I learned that I spent almost an hour a day sorting my mail. I had once worked as a buyer, and dealing with vast amounts of paper flowing across my desk was a major part of my responsibilities in those days. But as an engineer, I could ignore almost all of the paper that came my way (Don't tell my boss, though). I used that hour a day to brainstorm ideas for improving quality in our production department. That's the single biggest time-management improvement I've ever made.

 Another approach is documented in a wonderful little book entitled The Time Trap (AMACOM, 1997). The book was written by R. Alec MacKenzie, who tells a story about an executive who asked him for the biggest secret for saving time. MacKenzie told the executive to pick the most important thing he had to work on that day, then work on that and nothing else. If he got interrupted, he was to deal with the interruption as quickly as possible and then get back to his task. If he reached a logical stopping point, he was to go on to the next most important task. MacKenzie told the executive to pay him only what he thought this suggestion was worth. The executive paid $50,000. (By the way, if any of you want to pay me for passing on such valuable advice, make the check payable to Greg Ferguson c/o Quality Digest.)

 The idea of sticking to your top priority has served me well for many years. Nevertheless, I've heard some people laughingly reply, "I wish I could afford the luxury of just working on one thing at a time."

 There are two responses to that comment. First, the largest number of projects you can work on at one time is one. You can also work on zero. Most people who think they are working on multiple projects at the same time are just kidding themselves. The second point is that you can have many projects, but most of them are on hold for some reason. Let me say it again: You can only work on one thing at a time. If what you are working on is not your highest priority, then you are losing the opportunity to work on the most important project (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Prioritizing Projects for Better time Management

 Let me give you an example. Let's say your boss tells you to make a flow diagram of the manufacturing process for a new missile, and he needs it for tomorrow's board of directors meeting. Let's say you also have a weekly status report due in two days, and one of the quality technicians is waiting outside your door to discuss a control chart that has just gone out of control. Then you get a phone call from your wife.

 From such situations ulcers are born. But let's look at it the way MacKenzie might. Clearly the most important priority is the chart for the board of directors. Those people get the funding. So the board gets top priority and, because their flow diagram is due tomorrow, that's what you should work on first. The status report is not due for two days, so it can wait a little while.

 What about the technician and your wife? Those must be treated as interruptions. You shouldn't ignore the technician, and you'd better not ignore your wife. But both of those tasks can be dealt with quickly and with a minimum of disruption. So you give the technician some direction, talk to your wife and then get back to work on the flow diagram. Simple, right? What looked like four tasks is actually two with two interruptions. And one task clearly has to be done sooner than the other. Of course, it often gets more complicated than this in real life. And you often have more than four, or even 40, projects competing for your time. But the principle holds: Do the most important thing first.

 Maybe Mary Tyler Moore couldn't afford to be logical, but we can't afford not to be. Make your list, deal with interruptions and get back to work. Maybe someday you'll be an executive who can pay $50,000 for a good idea.


About the author

 Gregory P. Ferguson is senior quality engineer at Global Solar Energy in Tucson, Arizona. He has published numerous technical articles and assisted in the publication of two books. E-mail him at .

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