Yesterday's Light

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Quality Control, American Style

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Most people are probably aware of the current situation in the United States with respect to peanut butter (or, more correctly, peanut paste) and salmonella outbreaks.  The outbreaks, linked to a plant in Georgia, are responsible for 8 deaths and at least 500 sickened individuals.  One of the questions being asked by the media, of course, is: How can this happen in a country that supposedly has so many controls in place?  Shouldn’t this have been caught very early on, if not by the company itself, then reasonably quickly by the FDA?  Consider the following excerpt from a story in yesterday’s Washington Post:

Officials at the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which have been investigating the outbreak of salmonella illness, said yesterday that Peanut Corporation of America found salmonella in internal tests a dozen times in 2007 and 2008 but sold the product anyway, sometimes after getting a negative finding from a different laboratory (italics are mine).

Now, I’ve been a statistician for over 30 years.  I’ve spent most of my working life analyzing and interpreting data from manufacturing operations.  Some of that, of course, has been in the context of “quality control” (a misnomer, to be sure, but that’s another story).  What got my attention here is the last part of that last sentence (“sometimes after getting a negative finding from a different laboratory”).

What does that mean?  If true, it simply means that they engaged in one of the most common practices in manufacturing – they “retested” batches of product when the initial testing indicated a problem.  It’s done every day in almost any business you can think of.  The good news is that it usually doesn’t result in people dying (they might get a product that doesn’t work as advertised, but it generally doesn’t cost them life or limb).

Simply put, they made batches of peanut paste and then tested them for whatever characteristics required (the presence of salmonella being just one of them).  If the product met all the tests, it was released for sale.  Nobody, by the way, retests product that “passes”.  If the product failed to meet all of the testing requirements, it was almost certainly retested.  If it passed the second set of tests, it was released.  If it didn’t, it was probably retested again.  Finally, if they couldn’t make it “pass” using their own laboratory, they might ship a sample off to some other lab, again hoping for positive results.  As you might imagine, sooner or later you’re bound to get a result that makes you happy.  We used to call this practice “torturing the data until it gave you the right answer”.

The problem, obviously, is that the “bad data” is ignored as soon as you get some numbers that you like.  If the data you throw out is, in fact, correct, then you have a problem.  In this case, a very big problem.

Everybody talks about quality.  Everybody says that quality is their most important priority.

Everybody lies.  Mostly, it’s all about money.

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3 Responses to “Quality Control, American Style”

  1. Anita Jesse

    I am enjoying immensely your thought-provoking posts—as I have for a long while, but one thing about this one bugs me. What makes you say “American” style? It seems to me that these failures are “human” style. Is there any place in the world where people aren’t driven by self-interest—where quality control is flawless and never influenced by the desire for a postitive outcome? If there really is a place where none of the citizens succumb to the seven deadly sins, it would appear to be a closely guarded secret. I think it is healthy and necessary for us to engage in tough self-examination and strive for improvement. I think most of us are repulsed by the numbers of people who are willing to trample others while fighting to be on top. Still, I don’t think it is healthy to pretend that those seven deadly sins were unknown before American culture corrupted a pure world.

    Reply
  2. Paul Maxim

    You’re right, Anita, when you say that the U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on the “seven deadly sins”. Acting against the common good is an activity that knows no geographical boundaries and is blind to race or ethnic background or social status. I have no argument with that position.

    But when you say “I don’t think it is healthy to pretend that those seven deadly sins were unknown before American culture corrupted a pure world”, I think you’re missing a very important point.

    In a very real sense, the United States “invented” the current global economic system. We are the model that has been copied by virtually every modern economy in the world, including China. The reason that China has become such a threat to the global environment is because they built their economy based on the American system. They simply figured that if it worked for us, it would work for them, too. And it did.

    They also copied our manufacturing processes, including the way in which we decide what product gets shipped to customers and what product gets thrown away or reworked. If the stuff they make meets specifications, it gets shipped. If it doesn’t meet specs., it is either thrown away immediately or “reworked”. The first part of “reworking” it is to simply retest it.

    That’s how it’s done here and that’s how it’s done in most of the rest of the world. Now, it’s true that the rest of the world might have adopted this methodology on their own. But the fact is that they were simply copying us. And why not? America was rich and successful – the model obviously worked.

    There were exceptions, however. Do you remember when the Japanese began capturing the electronics and automobile markets in the 1980’s? Prior to that time, Japanese quality was a joke. But they changed the “model”. With the help of a farsighted American (W. Edwards Deming), they abandoned the American way of deciding what was “good” and what was “bad” product and began using a different methodology. Deming, by the way, was laughed at by companies like GM and Ford.

    Without going into detail, the Japanese became the very symbol of Quality. The rest, as they say, is history. But even they managed to screw it up eventually. Slowly, after Deming died, they began to revert back to the original American model.

    It ain’t just about peanut butter, either. Do you remember the Firestone tire fiasco with Ford? People died in that case, too. There are countless other examples. My point is simply that we invented the system responsible for many of these disasters, a system that has been copied around the world. But it’s our system, a system that emphasizes net profit and stock price at the expense of customer satisfaction and safety (not to mention job security).

    I know you read Paul Butzi’s blog – do you think his problems with HP and Adobe are unrelated to all of this?

    I don’t know that “American culture” has corrupted a pure world – the world has never been pure. But American business culture has certainly had a profound (and, I fear, a lasting) influence on how the world conducts its business.

    Reply
  3. ALAN MULLEN

    I agree with you whole heartedly, infact I came up with a term for U.S. Automotive (nonexclusive) Quality as the practice of “LOW IMPACT QUALITY”. Essentially, they talk about, spend lost of money on fads, support the current day guru’s selling ‘this Sigma’ and ‘That Sigma’, looking for the majic wand to be waved an Psst., Quality appears, but when it comes down to the bottom line, where they ‘feel pain’ aka., LOW IMPACT, then QUALITY is out the door.

    Reply

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