The price of quality

This company makes parts that are subject to rigorous quality control -- and that means they must be X-rayed before they're shipped to customers, says a programmer pilot fish working there.

"The process involved a technician writing the lot number down on a piece of paper," fish says. "The paper was affixed to the tray of parts that were X-rayed and sent to final inspection. The film was placed into boxes with film from other lots for storage.

"Depending on the parts, the film had to be stored for anywhere from 30 days to 99 years."

Trouble is, it's impossible to reliably track the film, because those pieces of paper get misplaced and lot numbers are mistyped.

So fish recommends to the quality manager that the written labels be replaced with barcodes, which can then go on both the lots being X-rayed and the films before they're stored.

"Send me an email and I'll take it up at the staff meeting," quality manager says. Fish does. The response: No point in doing that now, because a new ERP system will solve the problem once it's implemented plantwide.

Fish knows the ERP system won't do that, but he prints out his email and files it away.

"A month later, I approached the quality manager again, telling him, 'It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when,'" says fish. "Again he took it to the staff meeting and again it was declined. Printed and filed that one as well."

Two months later, a quality engineer comes to fish looking for the X-ray films for a dozen parts that failed in a customer's industrial equipment. Fish says he'll give the engineer what he can find, and returns the list with seven or eight matches.

"Where are the others?" engineer asks.

I don't know, fish admits.

"Why not? It's your program that tracks them!"

The program can't read paper, fish says, and walks the engineer through the problem and his recommendation.

Engineer goes straight to the quality manager, who soon calls in fish -- who pulls the filed emails before leaving for the quality manager's office.

"Why didn't you tell me this could happen?" quality manager demands.

Remember these? fish asks, handing him the emails. Quality manager's mouth drops open and his face goes pale. "How long will it take you to get this set up?" he asks.

Fish reports, "They wound up going through hundreds of storage boxes, with dozens of people looking for the film. They found two more.

"Eventually they settled with the customer for over $1 million in future order concessions, and agreed to create a proper system to track and store the film."

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