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Last year, I was talking to a QC specialist about the two products she works with. I understood they were made from somewhat different raw materials, but I wanted to know if they ended up with similar physical properties, if that was something she could talk about.
Is one much harder than the other?
Oh, no. The new material is just as easy to measure as the old one.
Er...that's good. I mean, is the material itself more rigid? *tap the table, in what was meant to be an example of rigidity but obviously was not seen that way*
All the specifications are rigid! These are medical devices!
I changed the subject. This was not a useful conversation to have during a job interview, especially when I had hoped to present myself as having good communication skills. The original question had been more or less idle curiosity. The misunderstanding is fascinating, but not in a way that feels safe to explore then and there.

I had a different kind of conversation with another QC specialist. She was telling me about investigating customer complaints, and feeding that information back into process improvement for manufacturing or supply or whatever. Every company with a Quality Department is trying to do something similar. I wanted to know what their starting point was like--were they investigating unusual or minor problems to fine-tune a process that was mostly pretty well in control? Or were the problems on a larger scale, coming out of a process that was not usually pretty close to being in control? I thought she might not want to tell me what the situation was, but most people who don't want to talk about how close their system is to being under control say things like, "it's not perfect, but we're working on it."

She answered by telling me about how her process had become so much better controlled since she started working there. The system for organizing customer complaint reports is very efficient now. When a customer calls with a problem these days, it's not a mad scramble. They can figure out right away what kind of problem it is and start responding appropriately. I had been trying to ask about how well the manufacturing process was controlled. (I hadn't wanted to say "manufacturing process," because I wanted to include supply, testing, and shipping.) I thought it was obvious that we were talking about a process whose end result is the product that a customer will delight in or complain about. That was what I thought of as being important, when I asked about process control. I think well of the complaint investigator, who seemed smart and competent and happy to talk with me...but it sounded like she was speaking from her specialty. So when I asked about process control, she told me about HER process, the one she spends so much time thinking about, the process of responding to customer complaints. (And it's great that it's efficient.)

Last week, Janet Napolitano said "once the incident occurred, the system worked," and the country reacted with horrified laughter. Even people who didn't think the underwear bomber had found a major flaw in the security system thought it was a pretty appalling time to brag about how effective the security system was. I'm not sure if it makes it more or less appalling to realize that Napolitano wasn't talking about the security system. She wasn't thinking about the overall process of preventing attacks on the US transportation system. She was thinking about the process she was in the middle of (probably one her team rehearses frequently) of responding to different kinds of perceived threats.

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adrian_turtle

March 2016

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