Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Yankee Amongst the Magnolias 5

The origin of grits: Cherokee Indians, native to the Southern region of the United States, first discovered grits trees growing wild during the thirteenth century. Chief Big Bear's squaw, Jemima Big Bear, is said to have run out of oatmeal one day, so she gathered the tiny grits growing from the grits trees and cooked them in water for Chief Big Bear. After eating the grits, Chief Big Bear ordered his squaw, Jemima, burned at the stake. ~ Lewis Grizzard, Don't Sit Under the Grits Tree with Anyone Else but Me.

The other day a coworker, a lady who is a native Alabamian, commented on how Northerners never really pick up Southern accents. We try, but we fail miserably. Anyone, even a non-Southerner, can immediately detect that hokey drawl, along with the incorrectly used “you-alls”.

(Note to Northerners who do not wish to embarrass themselves in Atlanta or Birmingham: It's “y'all” not “you-all”, and it's only used when referring to a group of people, not individuals. You don't say to an individual, “Have you-all been here before?”)

In fact, Northerners from heavily accented regions like New England or New York never completely lose their own distinctive, if somewhat abrasive, accents. My coworker noted that the opposite was not true. Southerners who move northward seem to lose their own accents, unless they happen to speak to other Southerners. I've witnessed this on my own. When I lived in Ohio, I knew a couple of relocated Southerners, and the longer one spoke to them, the fainter their accent got. When they were on the phone to a relative or talked to each other, though, their accents came back in force.

I think this has to do with the innate politeness that pervades the South. For example, when a Northerner is attempting a Georgia accent, the average Atlanta native will not start laughing out loud. The genuine Southerner will simply say, “You're not from around here, are you?” When the Southerner goes North, he or she is aware that the gentility of Southern speech stands out amidst the “youse guys” and “warsh your hands” of the locals (I was nine years old before I was sure that “wash” was not spelled with an “r” in the middle). So, the Southerner blends in, adding to everyone's comfort level.

Perhaps the one place they allow themselves to pull the Northerner's leg is the matter of grits.

When I first came to Alabama, the company where I worked was a division of a corporation headquartered in Erie, Pa. Whenever we visited potential vendors, one of us from Alabama would meet up with a buyer from Erie and go to the site. Generally, our vendors were located up North. On one such trip, I sat down at breakfast with Bert, the buyer, who looked at me sternly and said, “Don't you dare order grits!”

Of course, I knew better than to do that in Minnesota, but I was curious as to why. It seemed that Ed, one of my coworkers who also came from Ohio, had a penchant for tweaking the Erie buyers by ordering grits at every opportunity.

Now a real Southerner wouldn't do that. What a real Southerner does is confuse Northerners who come South.

I had moved on to another company down here that was regrettably owned by a Northern corporation. Periodically, we would be invaded by managers from New Jersey. One day at lunch, one of them commented on the fact that, when he ordered some bacon and eggs for breakfast, he was served a side of grits. I attempted to explain to him that grits are a staple of the Southern breakfast; if he had ordered coffee and a slice of pie, he'd have gotten a side of grits. That's just the way things are down here.

“Yeah, I understand that, but what I'm wondering is, what are grits, anyway?”

Before I could speak, our personnel manager, a native of Montgomery, spoke up and said, “They mine them.” At the manager's puzzled look, she launched into a fairly detailed discussion of the mining and grading of grits.

The next manager that visited got the grits tree treatment.

To be honest, I don't really know where grits come from, other than being reasonably sure that trees and mines aren't involved, but I do like them. I do, however, take a certain amount of abuse about the way I eat them. Traditionally, Southerners like their grits with a little salt and pepper and whole lot of butter. The might add cheese or bacon crumbles (real bacon, not those wretched things you sprinkle on salads), but they seldom sweeten them.

I prefer sugar on mine.

The first time I did this in the presence of some of the native-born folks, one of them merely rolled his eyes heavenward and sighed, “Yankees just don't understand grits.” Another one said to him, “Now don't get riled. At least he appreciates 'em, even if he doesn't know how to eat 'em properly.”

Then he looked at me and said, “You jest enjoy them grits any way that suits you.” And I did, and still do.

I do understand one traditional Southern favorite, though, and that's corn bread. I have actually seen recipes prepared by Northerners that contain sugar. Sweet cornbread is not real cornbread. If you're going to have cornbread with your jambalaya or barbecue, by golly you don't need sweet bread. I also understand that the only proper way to bake cornbread is in a cast iron skillet that's coated with bacon grease and preheated in the oven so that the batter sizzles when you pour it in.

I may eat grits wrong, but even my Southern friends will admit I understand cornbread.

Postscript: A day after I originally wrote this, I was walking by a local eatery which proclaimed as one of its lunch specials, "Fish and Grit". Just the one, but, man, it's huge.
More about being a Yankee Amongst the Magnolias (with links to earlier episodes)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

High Anxiety

What, me worry? ~ Alfred E. Neuman

CNN, hyping an article in another Time-Warner outlet (sorry, the link is gone), Time Magazine, advised that Americans worry too much and about all the wrong things. Some of their examples:
  • We are scared to death about avian flu, which has killed exactly no one in the United States, while neglecting to get shots against the regular forms of flu, which do in people every year.
  • We won't buy spinach because it may be contaminated by E. coli, but we'll stuff our faces with greasy burgers and artery-clogging lardshakes.
  • We fear catastrophes but avoid doing anything in advance that could mitigate the effects of such disasters.
We may not be number one in a lot of things any more, but I am reasonably sure that America leads the world in neurotic worrying. Of course, it's articles like the one at CNN that make us this way. The media has learned that if you want to have readers or viewers, throw a scare headline out there.

“Next on Newscenter! Strawberry shortcake: Dessert or terrorist weapon?”

"When we come back, the latest in our series on dangers facing our children. Tonight: Jawbreakers."

“Don't miss the next report in our continuing series, '1001 things in your home that will kill you!' “ (Actually, I think they've done this one.)

And, of course, the ever-popular, “Today's thing that causes cancer!”

The only thing that gets more attention is a series on sex, usually disguised as either social commentary, important health information, or criticism of all the sex on TV (with lots of teaser scenes from shows on that news program's very network). But, the sex stories also cause worry, hinting that our daughters are going to become prostitutes, implying that we're all going to get AIDS, and pretty much calling anyone who watches a top-rated TV show a pervert.

It's not that we shouldn't worry about things. We just don't prioritize well. The ordinary person can do little about global warming, but he or she can do something about hunger in the community. The average Joe can't do much about international terrorism, but Joe can go to the polls and vote against those who are wasting our tax dollars uselessly in the name of “homeland security” while attacking our rights to life, liberty, and property.

We should be concerned with the well-being of our families, but we should do the right sorts of things to minimize our risks and then move on with enjoying our lives. And therein lies the problem, I think. The average repressed American feels guilty about enjoying life. I mean, people are working long hours, often both partners in a household, so they can enjoy all the material pleasures that can entail. Then they feel so guilty about taking a vacation that they find ways to stay in touch with their problems via cell phone and/or the Internet. It's natural, therefore, as part of our national guilt trip, that we should take on all the worries that the media dish out.

Well, maybe people should consider some of these things instead.
  • In spite of the best efforts of the economic geniuses in Washington, we still enjoy the highest standard of living in the world. We also have so many resources, we can hold out a helping hand to those in need.
  • Terrorism is a decided problem, but there is an infinitesimal chance of some ragged weirdo building a nuclear bomb (dirty or otherwise), mass-producing sarin, or conducting biological warfare.
  • Yes, there's a lot of sex and violence on TV and scattered around the Internet, but there are also thousands of alternatives that can educate, entertain, and, yes, even relax us.
  • You really don't have to stay in constant touch with the world when you're taking time off. Honest. The world will get along without you for a while.
The trouble is that, even though things are rarely as dire as they seem, Americans must worry. Therefore, I would like to suggest some worries that are more low stress. If you must worry, worry about these things.

  • Will the Cubs ever win a World Series?
  • Just how many times can one stand hearing “White Christmas” over the store Muzak system?
  • How will the expansion of the universe affect my shoe size?
  • Sure, e-mail spam is bad, but will velveeta come back?
  • Why can't I let the water out of a leaking boat by opening another hole for the water to go out of?
  • How badly will Ohio State beat Florida in the BCS championship game?
I mean, how low stress you can you get?

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Quality Conundrum

“Quality” is best measured by those who “use” a product rather than by those who make it. ~ Hunter S. Thompson

Sony is making another recall, a minor one, involving camera display screens, which do not appear to be catching fire or anything. Sony, as everyone well knows, has been shooting itself in the foot with an AK-47 over the last few months. First there was the rootkit fiasco. Basically, Sony DRM-protected CD's required that you place software on your machine to play them. That software, it turned out, behaved in a manner that allowed system files to be replaced, not only by Sony (which they denied was ever their intent), but by any hacker who knew where to look.

After that shot to the old corporate image, there was the battery recall that impacted a wide swath of laptops, including Sony's own Vaio. The problem was tiny little metal bits in the battery that ultimately caused the battery to overheat and rather spectacularly burst into flame. What made the situation even more damning was that Sony evidently was aware of the problem and even discussed it with Dell (who got the lion's share of these fire bombs).

None of this is particularly newsy except that in one of the references to the most recent recall, someone made a reference to the Sony's quality control people not doing their job.

As a former quality professional, I take umbrage at that sentiment. It raises my hackles -- and you know how painful that can be.

I started in quality control in 1974 and kept at it until I was “re-engineered” out of a job in 1994. To show just how stupid I was, after getting the boot in '94, I actually tried to find another job in quality for a couple of months, before I had an epiphany that it might actually be time to do something I enjoyed doing. If you wonder why it took so long, I supposed it's rather like the guy who's banging his head against a wall. When asked why he keeps doing that, he responds, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

Boy, has it felt good.

At any rate, I wanted to make a point about how things like the Sony battery can happen. I don't know that this is what actually went on, but given the discussions with Dell mentioned above, I think I might be on the right track.

Quality Control departments don't catch everything that isn't made correctly. There are two reasons for this. First, most of them time it's prohibitively expensive to inspect every single part. With automation techniques, it is sometimes possible to test each product, but even those tests would not detect a problem that takes time to develop. Second, Production people will try to hide defective product. Yes, they will. The problem is that their goal is to generate quantity, and stopping to inspect everything or, worse, remaking a large quantity of parts due to a rejection gets in the way of that goal. For all the proud words companies spout about the importance of quality, their production supervisors know full-well that they will get a mild chastising for bad products but big rewards for making high production levels.

If it wasn't like that, you wouldn't need quality control departments in the first place.

So, what I'm saying is that sometimes, stuff gets out that shouldn't have. Sometimes, though, the quality people discover a defect issue and notify management, which proceeds to make a “management decision” to ship the stuff anyway.

Now, I can tell you in all honesty that many of these decisions are okay. Customers will over-specify products with a vengeance. When I worked in the rubber industry, I used to spend a lot of time trying to explain to customers that rubber parts are not like steel parts. Most of them are squishy. You can't hold the kinds of tolerances on a squishy material that you can a rigid one. Many's the time I decided on my own to let a washer go which was slightly too thick because I knew how the part was used, and I knew that being .001” over spec wasn't going to cause a problem.

But, I've also been a party to some bad decisions. At one company, I was overridden by a sales manager three times and by the president once. None of these involved life-threatening characteristics, but functionality could have been impaired in each case. Each one of those shipments was rejected by the customer. After a while, they stopped overruling my calls.

For the record, I often went to the sales manager to see if a customer might accept a condition, but on those occasions, he would call the customer and get a waiver. Those three occasions where he overrode me all came on the same day when the company was trying to generate some nice year-end shipping numbers.

Sony knew about the problem; their big customer Dell knew about the problem. The implication is that the quality people did their job, and the managers made one of those “decisions.”

In all the years I was in quality, I was with a company that had to deal with one of those situations (a really serious defect that could cause injury) only once. A defect was discovered during routine testing that showed that a manufacturing procedure had not been followed properly. To that company's enduring credit, it spent around $400,000 testing parts, remaking parts, revising procedures, and certifying production employees involved in the key process to feel sure that none of the defects had gotten to customers and to ensure that the problem didn't occur again.

I don't know how much it would have cost Sony to toss those defective batteries, but it would almost surely have cost a fraction of what recalling and replacing them cost, not to mention the cost of the bad press. But, I'll bet if you go looking for the people who let the situation get so far out of hand, you will find that the quality control group had been screaming like their hair was on fire long before “management decisions” were being made.

Quality control people have a tough job; they're the bad guys most of the time and get little or no credit when things go well. At one company, we were running one of those bad patches where a department was generating a lot of bad product. Our inspectors were identifying the problems, but the production supervisors just continued to run the jobs, with the result that every lot had to be inspected or reworked and a lot of stuff had to be remade. Finally, my boss and I held a council of war. We considered arming the inspectors but decided that bloodshed wasn't the answer. Eventually, my boss got the president to issue strict instructions to the head of Production that all shutdown notices from inspectors were to be honored immediately. Anyone failing to do so would be subject to disciplinary action.

Well, lo and behold, scrap and rework went way down, processes got corrected, and, just as the quality people keep saying, productivity went up. So who gets the credit? The president sends a letter to Production Manager praising him and his supervisors for the great job they did – said “great job” consisting of following the procedures they had been violating. The Quality Department? We got squat recognition.

You know the worst part of that story? It happened around 1976, yet I was dumb enough to stay in that profession for 18 more years. Oh, well, it could have been worse.

I could have stayed in quality and gone to work for Sony.