Six Sigma
Last Word


Last Word
Edward R. Buxton

Picture-Perfect Quality

Consideration of process details will result in a quality product.

My work in the quality profession began in the astounding late 1960s. First I worked as a quality control inspector, then in later years as a quality control inspection supervisor, and eventually as a quality assurance manager. I'd already had Air Force training and gained experience in electronics while working on tactical fighter planes in the United States and Vietnam. With that background, I was able to apply specific inspection criteria to materials produced in the factories where I later worked. I am presently at Tensolite Interconnect Systems, a Carlisle company, where we produce high-performance cable assemblies for high-speed data transmission applications and fiber optic cables for medical applications.

 As a quality assurance manager, my goal is to encourage all of our employees to share my interest in producing the highest-quality product. Beyond application of specific criteria, there must be a personal sense of quality. But from where do we gain that sense?

 We hear about quality from a wide range of sources, and the word is used in many different ways: "Quality is Job 1," "Quality First," "Quality, It's a Way of Life" and "Quality Is Our Most Important Product." These are short sound bites with no real meaning. Dictionaries define quality as "a degree of excellence," and the American Society for Quality says quality is "the totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy given needs." Some of these expressions may mean something to someone, but most of them leave me cold.

 A personal definition of quality does seem imperative, however, and I would like to share my own. My sense of quality came primarily from my experience in photography and grew to encompass the rest of my life.

 I began photographic studies at the University of Rochester in New York a number of years ago. I realized at a fairly early stage that photography requires a novice to master a wide range of details; numerous volumes have been filled with details on camera work, lighting, modeling, developing, printing, mounting and other aspects of the process that can bewilder the beginner.

 At first I tried to ignore all but the most essential details. I figured that as long as I got the basics under control, I'd have a picture. That worked fine for a while, and the process is probably similar for almost any pursuit. As I began to notice the difference between my pictures and the photographs of the masters, I realized that I was going to have to pay closer attention to more of the details. I wanted my images to have the clarity and brightness, the "ring" of fine work, that I saw in the great photographs.

 I started again at the beginning. I considered the details of focus, depth of field, lighting, exposure settings, interpretation of light meters, correct camera positioning, range and interpretation of reciprocity curves, bellows extension factors, placement of shadows, and development factors for highlights -- all before the film was exposed! Not all that surprisingly, I suppose, my pictures improved. With continued practice, paying attention to the details became second nature. Rather than becoming stumbling blocks, details functioned like the choreography of a dance that ultimately transcends its steps. I found that if I used care for each step of the process, the end product took care of itself.

 Eventually, I discovered that the secret lay in the details. The less I thought about the picture I was taking, the better the picture would turn out. The quality of a photograph became, for me, dependent on the extent to which I was able to disassociate myself from my goal and focus solely on the specific details, one at a time. My work eventually led me to a gallery show in New York City.

 There are attractive benefits to be derived from this kind of discipline. As I found out from my photography, if I cared for the work I was doing and applied myself to each step of the process, the end product was something of which I could be proud. My work gained meaning -- and higher quality -- from the personal investment I was willing to make.

  Let me return for a moment to Tensolite Interconnect Systems. In the midst of our flurry, the push to "get the product out," if we could focus on just the moment, on just the electrical contact that's being put in or the crimp that's being made or the test that's being performed, quality would take care of itself. The more attention we pay to the pressures of work or our schedules, or the latest gossip, the less attention we pay to the job at hand. If we can focus solely on the immediate, our jobs will get done faster and better.

 So why invest yourself in work like that? We've all heard the business reasons: It improves the product, it increases sales, it means more money for profit sharing, and so on. My interest goes further than that and is a lot more immediate: I want to be proud of what I do. I want my work to mean something to me. In many ways, my photography isn't all that different from my work. In fact, the lessons I've learned about photographic quality can be applied to everything I do. I simply take one step at a time -- with care.

About the author

 Edward R. Buxton is quality assurance manager at Tensolite Interconnect Systems, 30 Gauthier Drive, Essex Junction, VT 05452. In addition to his work in the quality professions, he has taught high school and undergraduate photographic courses and has participated in numerous showings of his photographic work. Contact Buxton at ebuxton@qualitydigest.com .

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