The O-ring

Part 1

How many times have you thought to yourself – “There must be a better way to do this.”?  It’s too complicated, it takes too much time or as my daughter would say –  ”Whatever!”.  Why are you tasking yourself with this on-going challenge? Simple. It’s because you want to do something faster, easier, at a lower cost, improve the quality and give the customer a better overall value.

History repeats itself over and over again. By nature we find better ways of doing things or invent something that is a natural progression driven by the necessity to improve our quality of life and make businesses more efficient; e.g. Edison’s progression from a candle to the light bulb, Bell’s communication improvement of the telegraph to the telephone and Henry Ford’s assembly line process.

So by now you are probably wondering why the title “The O-ring”.   I learned a valuable lesson about eliminating waste and continuous improvement that has stuck with me for the rest of my life. “The O-ring” is a true story that influenced my way of working and I would like to share it with you. It might just help you lead your organization to think about ways to eliminate waste, to save time, to increase productivity!

My first corporate job….

Circa 1962, and It was my first job out of college where I was employed by International Harvester Truck Engineering in Fort Wayne, IN.  My first job was working in the Blueprint Room filing documents, running a blue print machine and other odd jobs. After a few months, I was promoted to Detail Draftsman and given a workstation, seated adjacent to a young man named Jack, in a large open room with approximately 1,000 other engineers. All the drawings were made using ink pens or special lead with mechanical pencils on cloth, velum or Mylar. All drawings were made using orthographic projection (three views - front, side and top) of the object.  Yes, this was before CAD (computer added design) and math function calculators.

The O-ring lesson…

One day Jack and I were given instructions to make hundreds of drawings of various types and sizes of O-rings. O-ring drawings are not complicated and needless to say it was a rather boring job. To make it fun, Jack and I would race to see who could finish first with the fewest errors. (Write to me and I will tell who won.)

There are thousands of O-ring types and sizes with a variety of applications and uses from sophisticated hydraulic couplings and seals to simple hose connections. As I had done in the past, I made several drawings with two views (front and side). While in the process, I concluded that this was a waste of time…there was, indeed, a better way to do this.

 The company could save drafting time if certain types, sizes and material specifications could be put on one drawing. So I did! I made one drawing with one front view showing typical dimensions for the inside diameter (A), the outside diameter (B), a cross section showing the body diameter (C) and a table that listed all the part numbers for the given dimensions and material specification. In lieu of making hundreds of drawings, this was a simple solution that saved hundreds of drawings, blueprints and labor hours. Now, this wasn’t rocket science. It didn’t take long for my supervisor to recognize that this would eliminate hundreds of drawings (eliminating waste, saving time, increasing productivity and improve the process). It became the accepted O-ring drawing standard.

Lesson learned….

This experience changed the way I approached my job and my career. As I mentioned in Part 3 of my The Six Management Actions article, it’s our charge as leaders to encourage others to think about how to make things better (continuous improvement) and not to be satisfied with status quo! The old adage is true – “If you’re not improving you’re falling behind”.

 In Part 2, I'll describe how this initial O-ring experience helped me in my next major engineering assignment; the Metro Van Task Force project.

 Part 2

After reading Part 1 you might enjoy learning in Part 2 how and why the O-ring experience played an important part in my next working experience to eliminate waste and achieve continuous improvement through vehicle engineering design and manufacturing processes.

The Value Task Force assignment….

Circa 1966, when I was working at International Harvester Truck Engineering, I was chosen to be a participant in a Value Task Force to analyze the design and manufacturing processes of the Metro Van (short haul - light delivery truck for baked goods, milk, tools, etc.), which was a product of the Metropolitan Body Company, Bridgeport, CT., a wholly owned subsidiary of International Harvester Co. (now NAVISTAR). I had been through the Kepner-Tregoe, Inc., Value Analysis & Engineering Value training, but was a greenhorn when it came to an assignment of this magnitude.

International Harvester Value Task Force - 1966

International Harvester Value Task Force - 1966

The Task Force assignment was to evaluate and analyze the truck part-by-part (over 2,000 part numbers), their fit and function and cost to purchase or manufacture and to make recommendations on how to improve the design and reduce the cost without compromising the features and advantages of the original design. You need to know that this product was highly recognized by customers as being the best-designed truck in the market; easy ingress and egress, great visibility, maneuverability, performance, etc. It was a good-looking product but the quality was inconsistent and costs were out of control.

After studying hundreds and hundreds of drawings, part numbers and manufacturing process sheets, the Task Force realized that several parts and processes were redundant and could be eliminated.

Metro Van - 1959

Metro Van - 1959

Metro Van - 1970

Metro Van - 1970

The recommendation…

After about 6 months, the Task Force completed the assignment with a recommendation to redesign the truck using a new concept (simplistic but functional styling with an all aluminum body riveted together using castings, extrusions and flat plate), which would significantly reduce cost, improve the quality and manufacturability, while not compromising the vehicle features and advantages most recognized by customers. The recommendation was accepted and approved by upper management. About six months later, I was appointed Project Engineer to lead the body design phase of the project. The project was completed and the truck went into production two years later. The rest is history.

Lesson learned….

You might ask, “Why and how does this relate to my business and today’s environment?” With today’s technology, this project would have taken less than half the time, which means that when designing, building or just simply assessing how you do things it’s fairly easy to step back and evaluate ways to eliminate waste or make improvements. This was the lesson I learned from the Metro Van Task Force experience. 

In Part 3, I’ll talk about how these early experiences helped me to lead Eagle Picher Minerals, Inc. through the Total Quality Management initiative.

Part 3

Picking up where I left off in Part 2, I think about several times in my career when the O-ring experience helped me to instill in fellow employees an attitude of finding and eliminating waste and continuously improving everything we did.  One such time is when I was President of Eagle Picher Minerals, Inc. (EPMI)

It was the decade of the 90’s. Electronic communication and the Internet were exploding at a pace that eclipsed businesses capability to keep pace. Many businesses were coping with external pressure to integrate new processes and systems to either maintain the business or gain a competitive edge. At the same time, the pressure was on to get ready for Y2K and even greater pressure to perform to a new level with quality products and services.

So, what did EPMI do to cope with the Cultural Revolution and what was the strategy? It was simple; “Consistently deliver quality products and services to our customer’s expectations worldwide.” The strategy was simple but the strategic objectives and the execution was more important if EPMI was going to be successful. What did they do?

The Total Quality Management (TQM) initiative…

At EPMI, we had several areas of the business that exhibited opportunity for improvement. The management team also knew that it would involve changing the way we worked. “How do we change the way we work while maintaining day-to-day business?” Business was good and so was the bottom line!  “How much can the organization take on at one time?” “What’s the top priority; ISO Certification, TQM, new computer software and hardware, etc.?” We needed to set priorities around measurable objectives that complimented a strategy to “deliver consistent quality products and services”.

It became evident that we needed to go back to basics, open up all processes / systems, document them and look for unnecessary steps or redundancies that didn’t had value (eliminate waste) and improve the quality. But how? There were many ways to tackle the improvements we coveted; Malcolm Baldrige, Deming, ISO Standards & Systems, Special Process Control (SPC) processes, etc. You name it, it was available. Eventually, we decided to implement TQM and that Deming’s approach was the best way for EPMI to attain its objectives.

The posse was on the way…

We recognized that we needed help so we hired an organization that was an expert in training and coaching us through Dr. Deming’s Fourteen Points. If you’re interested, here is a link and “The No Red Beads Experiment”.

The posse arrived and we began by setting up training sessions for management, and the entire organization. Weeks and weeks of training where we learned how to use al all the continuous improvement techniques and tools; flow charts, Pareto charts, histograms, scatter diagrams, control charts and the list goes on. This was followed by appointment of TQM leaders who went to work forming their own process improvement teams. As I mentioned in my article The Six Management Actions, “It took a couple of years of regular training, several process improvement teams and frequent and timely reporting (feedback) on results before this became a normal way of working. The company expanded into global markets, doubled and tripled in size and today is still one of the world’s top suppliers of specialty industrial minerals.”

Lesson learned….
This journey began with a story about how changing an O-ring drawing improved the design process. In Part 2, I discussed my Task Force experience where a group of people was encouraged to work together, to share ideas, to make things better.  The lesson learned from these initial experiences were invaluable and played an important role in the successful implementation of TQM. 

The TQM lesson is greater than just the results obtained from the individual and collective process teams. Although I can cite many examples of success stories and awards won, it was employee engagement that created a game-changing and historically successful transformation of the company culture.  This cultural change created a new way of working that sustained the business for years to come.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and that it has encouraged you to help others look for ways to continuously improve. As my friend George would say, “Life is good - with Excel!” There is another story behind this quote. You’ll have to wait until I publish my book to learn more…..

Enjoy the rest of your summer!