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Inspiration from the strangest places: Bukowski and Six Sigma

September 11th, 2007 | By: Martin Arrand

You wouldn’t expect a great lesson in Six Sigma from an alcoholic Beat novelist, would you…?

This is from Charles Bukowski‘s first novel, Post Office, which is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s “career” with the US Postal Service, delivering and sorting mail. I’ve mainly paraphrased the episode in order to respect the author’s copyright.

Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, is called into the supervisor’s office to be taken to task for his poor performance:

“Chinaski, it took you 28 minutes to throw a 23 minute tray.”

Chinaski whines a little and the supervisor explains that there is a production schedule to meet and that not meeting the targets for sorting trays results in overtime. Chinaski cracks that he must be responsible for the 3 and a half hours overtime each night (interesting that the sorting office is running on constant overtime?)

He develops his argument, and here we get some instinctive Six Sigma analysis:

“Each tray is 2 feet long. Some trays have 3, or even 4 times as many letters than others. The clerks grab what they call the ‘fat’ trays. I don’t bother. Somebody has to stick the tough mail. Yet all you guys know is that each tray is two feet long and that it must be stuck in 23 minutes. But we’re not sticking trays in those cases, we’re sticking letters.”

Chinaski has a better grasp of what drives work (and therefore what should be measured when assessing productivity) than his supervisor, who is intent on simply tearing him off a strip. But even better than this, Chinaski has a sensible way of implementing this kind of measure without over-complicating the process:

“…if you’re going to time a man, don’t judge him on one tray. Even Babe Ruth struck out now and then. Judge a man on ten trays, or a night’s work.”

He knows that taking snapshot measures captures too much of the inherent variability in the process – extend the number of observations in the measure and we iron out those common-cause variations that just confuse the assessment of performance.

Of course the real question is, how many of our shop-floor operators have the kind of insights that Chinaski/Bukowski has? I suspect it’s more than we would like to own up to.

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