Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: quality assurance

Bean counters

People like myself (bookkeepers & accountants) are sometimes referred to as bean counters. The none-too-complimentary implication is that we spend hours at our desks sorting beans into little piles with no idea of what those beans represent. It isn’t necessarily so.

I used to work in the quality assurance department of a factory that made engineered rubber products for the automobile industry. The automobile companies asked for bids to produce parts for them. We had a team of engineers who would do a thorough analysis of the costs of producing a part and our company would bid on the ones we thought we could profitably manufacture.

One part that we contracted to make was produced on a very high tech, made in France, rubber injection moulding machine. The bid had been based on one person being able to load and unload the machine, hand trim the little bits of excess rubber and pack the parts in a shipping container. Once in actual production it was found that a second person was needed. The production management computer program showed that this skyrocketed the costs and we were losing a bundle on this part. After two years we did not bid on this part again.

Up to this point accounting had been done in an office in another city. Then an accountant was relocated to an office in our plant. She was intrigued by the huge cost overrun on this part and began to investigate. It didn’t take long for her to discover that when a second person was added for making this part, the computer program automatically added another expensive injection moulding machine and calculated the capital cost allowance and operating expenses for this second machine. When she removed that phantom machine from the calculation she found that the part had been a money maker, not a money loser.

At that point I left to become a missionary in Montréal, but I understand the company was preparing to bid on that part again the next time it became available.

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What am I looking for?

I appear to haveinspector-160143_1280 a talent for spotting faults. I worked as a grain buyer for a number of years, which involved scrutinizing a sample of grain to detect foreign matter and any type of damage to the kernels. Later, I worked as a quality assurance inspector in an auto parts plant. The job was much the same, look for damaged or mis-assembled parts that we did not want to get to our customers for them to assemble onto a car travelling down the assembly line.

When it comes to things I read, I am quick to notice bad spelling, misused words and poor sentence structure, as well as urban legends told as facts and statements in Christian writing of dubious doctrinal legitimacy.

This is all well and good, and useful – up to a point. I’m not always sure where the point is when I should stop looking for faults. I am pretty much oblivious to what ladies are wearing and what they do with their hair. I think this is a good thing. My wife does wish I was not so clueless when she holds up a piece of material and asks me how I think this colour or pattern would look on her.

Lately I’ve been thinking that I don’t have much of a problem letting people know when I notice something that’s not the way it should be (according to my point of view, at least), but I’m not nearly so apt to point out things that I appreciate. Like the young lady in one place of business that I frequent who has such a warm and caring way of dealing with all the customers, even the difficult and annoying ones. Or the grand-daughter who is quick to see when something needs to be done and goes ahead and does it. Or the friend who has a knack for asking a question that will start a long and interesting conversation.

Maybe if I l speak up and let these people know how much I admire what they do, just maybe, some of their admirable qualities might rub off on me. At the very least, I have decided that I need to make a conscious effort to look for the good that others are doing.

The right and wrong use of statistics

[This is an article I wrote a year ago for The Business Bulletin.]

A few weeks ago I went into a small town branch of the Royal Bank of Canada with a cheque received for some translation work. The cheque was in US dollars and I asked the teller to convert it to Canadian dollars, give me $80.00 in Canadian cash, $20.00 in US cash (to include in a card I was sending to someone in the US) and deposit the rest to my account. I received friendly and efficient service and left without thinking any complicated thoughts about what had transpired.

A survey firm called a few days later, asking me to rate different facets of that banking experience on a scale of one to ten. I told him I couldn’t do it. I do not look at other people as machines and mentally rate their performance on a scale of one to ten. That doesn’t make sense to me.

I suspect the bank intended to use the survey results for publicity purposes, informing the public of the great satisfaction rating of the Royal Bank of Canada. How can anyone trust such a poll when the respondents most likely just pick numbers out of the air so the questioner will let them get back to their work?

Sometimes it is important to consider what the statistics are actually measuring. Do statistics of traffic violations by province measure the driving habits of the population or the enforcement habits of the police? Statistics on charitable donations per capita show Saskatchewan near the top of the list and Quebec near the bottom. These stats come from the receipted donations claimed on income tax returns. Is it possible that Quebeckers are more generous in giving spontaneously without needing a receipt? Do statistics such as these shape our opinions of the people of each province?

I believe it was Mark Twain who stated that there were three kinds of lies: lies; d****d lies; and statistics. That being said, I am a strong believer in the usefulness of statistics — when dealing with inanimate objects that can be measured or counted. I took numerous courses in statistics in preparation for writing the Certified Quality Engineer exam. I worked for many years with the practical application of statistical analysis in a manufacturing setting and I am convinced that this is the most effective way of determining what is going on in an industrial process.

We first need to understand some basic principles. The sample to be measured must be chosen completely at random, there is a margin of error to be taken into account in each sample, and an average of one time out of twenty the sample will not be representative of the actual process. In a manufacturing setting, samples are taken at regular intervals. If one sample does not fall within the range established by preceding samples it may mean that the process has changed, or it may be the one time out of twenty when the sample was not truly representative of the process. The way to find out is to immediately take another sample. If this one falls within the limits established by earlier samples, it means the former sample was not representative. If measurement of the resample gives results close to the former sample it is time to sound the alarm, shut down the process and find out what has changed. Statistical methods have done wonders in tightening tolerances and reducing waste in industrial processes.

Statistical sampling of opinion is fraught with much more complexity. First off, you are dealing with opinions, which are subjective and not amenable to precise measurement. Secondly, it is hard to obtain a truly representative sample, many people might be unavailable or unwilling to participate. Thirdly, there is no way of telling if a one time poll falls on the side of the 19 times out of 20, or the 1 time out of 20. Fourthly, many polls are conducted with leading questions designed to elicit a certain type of response. Another complicating factor arises when a newspaper eliminates the no responses and no opinions and calculates a percentage using only the remaining responses. That can raise the margin of error into the stratosphere.

I could phone a few hundred people at random with the following question: “The beautiful flowers of Purple Loosestrife are no longer seen in Saskatchewan’s wetlands. Do you think this is due to: a) global warming; b) excessive use of pesticides; c) lack of pollination due to honey bee die back; or d) a dramatic increase in the number of Canada Geese?” Many people will have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that Purple Loosestrife was deliberately eradicated ten years ago as an invasive species and will pick one of the answers supplied. I might come up with a statistic saying that 50% of Canadians believe that Canada Geese are destroying Purple Loosestrife in Saskatchewan, but such a result would be rubbish.

Too many surveys are conducted along similar lines, giving a choice of preselected answers on sensitive subjects such as abortion and gay marriage. Then the results are fed back to us as proof of what the majority of Canadians think on this particular topic. The newspapers report the results of these surveys with a slant that indicates that those of us who think otherwise are quite out of step with the times, perhaps even hinting that we are dangerous to the public good.

Such carefully manipulated polls are voices of the zeitgeist, pressuring us to think in the approved manner of our time. We should take a step back and look at what is really behind these polls, so we can think soberly and realistically. May we never be ashamed to express those sober and realistic thoughts, they may be a breath of fresh air for someone trapped in the stifling atmosphere of the zeitgeist.

We are men and women. It should not be possible for a propaganda machine to adjust and fine tune our attitudes as if we were machines.

We are not machines

A week ago I went into a small town branch of the Royal Bank of Canada with a $500.00 cheque I had received for some translation work.  The cheque was in US dollars and I asked the teller to give me $80.00 in Canadian cash, $20.00 in US cash and deposit the rest in my account.  (The $20.00 US was to go with a sympathy card for a young sister who was returning home, having just received word of her father’s death.)  I received prompt, friendly and efficient service and left without thinking any complicated thoughts about what had just transpired.

Yesterday I had a call from a survey firm asking me to rate different facets of that banking experience on a scale of 1 to 10.  I told him I couldn’t do it.  I am not a machine, I don’t look at other people as machines and go about mentally rating their performance on a scale of 1 to 10.  That just doesn’t make any sense to me.

I believe it was Mark Twin who stated that there were three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies; and statistics.  That being said, I am a strong believer in the usefulness of statistics — when dealing with inanimate objects that can be measured or counted.  I took numerous courses in statistics in preparation for writing the Certified Quality Engineer exam.  I worked for many years with the practical application of statistical analysis in a manufacturing setting and I am convinced that this is the most effective way of determining what is going on in an industrial process.

We first need to understand some basic principles.  The sample to be measured must be chosen completely at random, there is a margin of error to be taken into account in each sample, and one time out of twenty the sample will not be representative of the actual process.  In a manufacturing setting, samples are taken at regular intervals.  If one sample does not fall within the range established by preceding samples it can mean that the process has changed, or it may be the one time out of twenty when the sample was not truly representative of the process.  The way to find out is to immediately take another sample.  If this one falls within the limits established by earlier samples it means the former sample was not representative.  If measurement of the re-sample gives results close to the former sample it is time to sound the alarm, shut down the process and find out what has changed.  Statistical methods have done wonders in tightening tolerances and reducing waste in industrial processes.

Statistical sampling of opinion is fraught with much more complexity.  First off, you are dealing with opinions, which are subjective and not amenable to precise measurement.  Secondly, it is hard to obtain a truly representative sample, many people might be unavailable or unwilling to participate.  Thirdly, there is no way of telling if a one time poll falls on the side of the 19 times out of 20, or the 1 time out of 20.  Fourthly, many polls are conducted with leading questions designed to elicit a certain type of response.

For instance, I am sure I could compile impressive looking survey results if I were to phone a few hundred people at random with the following question: “The beautiful flowers of Purple Loosestrife are no longer seen in Saskatchewan.  Is this due to: a) global warming; b) excessive herbicide use; c) lack of pollination due to honey bee die back; or 4) a dramatic increase in the number of Canada Geese?”  Many people will have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that Purple Loosestrife was deliberately eradicated ten years ago as an invasive species and will pick one of the answers supplied.

The results of such a survey would be rubbish.  Yet too many surveys are conducted along similar lines, giving a choice of pre-selected answers on sensitive subjects such as abortion and gay marriage.  Then the results are fed back to us as proof of what the majority of Canadians think on this particular topic.  The newspapers report the results of these surveys with a slant that indicates that those of us who think otherwise are quite out of step with the times, perhaps even hinting that we are dangerous to the public good.

Such carefully manipulated polls are voices of the zeitgeist,  pressuring us to think in the approved manner of our time.  Christians should be listening to a different voice, the voice of the Holy Spirit.  He will set us free to think soberly and realistically.  May we never be ashamed to express those sober and realistic thoughts, they may be a breath of fresh air for someone trapped in the stifling atmosphere of the zeitgeist.

We are men and women, not machines.  It should not be possible for a propaganda machine to adjust and fine tune our attitudes as if we were machines.

Getting the point across

My wife and I were getting ready to go to Saskatoon, an hour’s drive from our home.  I thought we needed to leave by 9:30 to accomplish all we wanted to do.  I busied myself getting ready, preparing the things I needed to take to the places I needed to go.  My wife was busy with other things in the house and didn’t appear to be in much of a hurry.  My frustration began to mount and I was on the verge of saying something when a little voice in my head said: “How is she supposed to know that you want to leave by 9:30?  You never told her that.”

I did say something to her then, but it had an altogether different tone than what I had originally thought of saying.  We didn’t get away at 9:30, yet there was still time to accomplish all we wanted to do and to enjoy the day.

We lived next door to a family with a girl the same age as our daughter.  The mother worked full-time as a nurse, yet was a super-neat, super-efficient housekeeper.  She wanted her daughter to learn to keep house like she did, but she was in too much of a hurry to bear with the poor girl’s fumbling attempts.  It was so much quicker to just do it herself.  Her daughter never acquired much in the way of housekeeping skills until she was grown up and on her own.

Dad gives his son instructions on how to do a job, then leaves for work.  When he comes home, he finds that his son has hit a snag and abandoned the job.  Dad grumbles that if he wants a job done right he’ll just have to do it himself.

A family business hires a new employee who is not of the family.  The employee is given a list of responsibilities and sent to work.  It isn’t long until the new employee quits or is fired because he/she never did figure out just what was expected of him/her.

If only one person understands what is expected, no real communication has taken place.  In the case of a child or a new worker, words are usually not enough.  A more effective approach is to work with the child or employee until one is confident they can do the job without further coaching.

Part of my job in the quality assurance department of  an auto parts plant some years ago was developing operating procedures to be posted at each piece of equipment in the plant.  This may sound silly, but it was a great help to someone who had operated this machine for one day several months ago and now was once again assigned to it.  Another visual aid was to put up samples of unacceptable defects that made a part unusable and of minor visual defects that were acceptable because they did not in any way compromise the function of the part.

Effective communication does not always require a lot of words.  My wife knew a lady who was a Bosnian refugee.  One day her son brought home a fish and cleaned it over the toilet bowl, plugging the toilet.  Desanka went to Canadian Tire to buy a plunger, but didn’t know what it is called  in English.  She went to a clerk and said “I want,” then made vigorous up and down pumping motions with her hands clasping an imaginary handle.  He understood immediately.

Tell me, I’ll forget;
Show me, I’ll remember;
Work with me, I’ll understand.
-author unknown

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