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Thursday, November 19, 1998

Of red beads, white beads & professional management 

Manjari Raman  
Who would think that 850 white beads and 85 red beads could actually transport an auditorium full of managers back to B-school? But that is exactly what George P Koshy, regional director-Asia, Omnex Inc.--down from Ann Arbour, Michigan--did. Of course, with a little help from Dr Deming's Red Bead Experiment, designed specifically to jog managers out of their complacency and to remind them of their role and responsibility towards ensuring quality in the finished product.

THE GAME: Koshy reserves for himself the star role: The Maverick Management (think Dilbert's boss with satanic hair). He then asks for volunteers who don't mind being laughed at--it's surprising just how many managers spring up with alacrity--and who are then cast into supporting roles: five operators on a shopfloor; two quality inspectors, positioned at different corners of the stage; a chief quality inspector, who supervises the two inspectors; and finally, a defects record-keeper.

The five ``workers'' are then trained in their job: they have before them a plastic bowl consisting of 850 small white beads and 85 red beads. Each worker is given a paddle which has 50 holes perforated in it. For ``production'' each operator has to run the paddle through the beads and scoop up 50 beads. White beads represent a product that can be sold--all red beads are a defect. Even though zero-defect is the goal, the management generously specifies that the maximum number of defects--or red beads--allowed per worker is one.

Each worker must now scoop the paddle through the balls, and then carry the paddle to Inspector A and B, to record the defects. Both inspectors note down the defects independently and silently. The supervisor then checks if both have written down the same number of defects, and announces the defects per worker aloud. Each time a worker's productivity is announced, management has something threatening or cajoling to say. The game records this process over five ``days''.

There is much mirth--initially--as the workers struggle to get only white balls on the paddle. The results are quite dismal as in five attempts each worker gets fluctuating success in keeping defects down. On day one, for example, the five operators score the following defects respectively: 9, 6, 5, 5, 7. Eventually, the number of total red beads per day, for the five days are: 32, 39, 39, 38, 38.

Slowly, as the game progresses, the mood turns serious as managers realise the underlying lessons. Koshy strings together the learnings of the red beads:

The knowledge of psychology: Operators admitted to feeling bad when they drew red balls instead of white balls on the paddle. Does management realise people feed bad when there are defects, even if it is beyond their control? Instead of blaming workers, it's management which needs to change its mindset.

Interaction of forces: Management can optimise processes, only if it understands the interdependence of the components of the process such as equipment (the kind of paddle determines the number of defects), the raw material (instead of only white beads, there are impurities of red beads), the method (how operators scoop the beads adds to defects).

Capable versus incapable processes: In the experiment the process is stable but it is incapable of delivering defect-free results. That's because there are defects in raw material: if 10 per cent of the total beads are red, any random or mechanical sampling will result in close to a 10 per cent defect rate. Managements must recognise incapable processes.

In-control versus out-of-control processes: A control-limit analysis of the proportion of defective beads shows that the process is giving results within control limits--but it is not capable of satisfying customer requirements. Once again, it's the management's responsibility to change the process.

Tampering: Rather than attack root causes, managements and operators tamper with processes. Management tampers when it shirks its responsibility of changing the process and instead blames operators. Operators tamper with processes by making adjustments to specified norms of production--in the experiment, an operator tried to remove a red bead by hand.

Common causes and special cause variation: Variables which contribute to variation, but are not easy to identify--like red beads in the raw material--are common causes, which the management needs to work on. Variables which contribute to variation but are easier to identify are special causes--the effect of a powercut, for example--and should be left to operators to handle.

Operational definitions: Since only red beads were specified as a defect, at one stage, there was confusion between the number of defects recorded by the two inspectors in the case of `no beads'. Management must realize that the lack of proper operational definitions causes confusion.

Theory and actual: In theory you can get zero defects--after all, out of 850 white beads, it should be possible to scoop out 50 white beads. In actual fact you cannot. Managements should realize the difference--it's the reason why sometimes, a design will not work on the shop floor.

Copyright 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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