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Where's My Pickle?

One of my favorite places for a quick lunch downtown is a cafe called Boopy's (not the real name). I always order the same lunch combo - a half panini with a bowl of soup. Then I sit down to wait for my order. And I start wondering if today there'll be a pickle. Sometimes I get a pickle, sometimes, no pickle. Today, I got a pickle, a cherry tomato AND a jalapeno! It nearly blew my mind. So what's behind the great pickle variability? Do they sometimes run out? Does it depend on the cook working that day? On the cost of the panini I ordered? On how friendly I appear to be?

For most customers, consistency is a proxy for quality. A consistent product, packaged and presented in the same way, indicates that the manufacturer has control. Control of materials, processes and the work environment - so that regardless of who's working, the product, whether a meal or a drilling rig, is always made to specifications and is always the same. A lack of control leads to variability. It is that variability that your customers see over time - not your average performance. And that variability (or lack of it) is one of the ways that they evaluate your quality. Imagine you work in a company where your contractor submits engineering drawings to you for review and approval. On project 1, the title block is in the bottom right hand corner, is to scale, uses imperial units, and does not include welding details. On project 2, the title block is in the bottom left hand corner, uses imperial units, is not to scale, and references welding procedures. On project 3, the title block is back in the bottom right hand corner, is to scale, but does not include welding details and this time uses metric units. This kind of inconsistency might leave you doubting the engineering process - wondering if there is oversight on the project and the drawings, if they use a template library incorporating lessons learned and best practices from previous projects. Or is it just left up to the imagination of the latest engineer they've hired?

This is one of the areas where ISO 9001 can be powerful. Two of the quality management principles, the process approach and the systems approach to management, directly address the importance of effectively designing, operating and controlling your processes. Six Sigma can take these concepts further through the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) cycle.

There is a famous quote in quality that goes something like: "It is better to be consistently wrong than inconsistently right". The thinking behind it is that if you have a repeatable and reliable process, it is much easier to make sustainable changes to it, than if you have no process at all. How are your business processes running? Are they a well-oiled machine, or do you find yourself... in a pickle? (Sorry, couldn't resist). Do you think consistency is important to business success? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.

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