Other Dimensions: Certificates of Confusion

January 1, 2011
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Being a simple guy, I’m easily dazzled by many things in life. For example, I’m thunderstruck when airline crew warn me to turn off my cell phone, computer, Etch A Sketch or similar devices in case they interfere with the aircraft’s electronics. What amazes me about this is the thought that the airline has spent a gazillion dollars to buy the latest flying technology that could be rendered inoperative by some kid with an iPod that didn’t hear or heed the warning.

Of course, it could be that the warning is a lie and what it’s really all about is making sure passengers pay attention to the demonstration on how to fasten a seat belt.

I really shouldn’t be that surprised with all of this because I see a similar situation in the quality field.

Here’s how it goes: A company hires the appropriate consultants to establish a quality system to whatever standard is in vogue in its industry. After spending all this money to keep the quality of the products it produces up to expectations, the process then becomes one of ensuring everyone in the organization follows the rules.

It’s rather like a government producing a new, specifically vague law with laudable goals, if that’s possible. The details required to make it work are left to the civil servants to interpret and apply by creating regulations that even the politicians who voted in favor of the law rarely understand.

On the quality side of things, to the uninitiated like me, it seems to be more about paperwork than what that paperwork means-if anything. We can end up with the whole system failing because one piece of paper is not what it implies or the holders of it assume what it means.

The most used document that falls into this category is the certificate of compliance, which is used when whatever it certifies cannot be verified after the fact. It’s a promise by the issuer of it that a specified process was followed. Too many people assume it can be used in place of a calibration report for a gage or instrument, and that is not the case. Why? The certificate of compliance is a promise that simply claims “we did it right.” No proof is provided. A calibration report offers data to prove the gage is correct-or not.

The key reason why these worthless bits of paper are so popular is because they cost the gage buyer nothing. They are the result of cost cutting by gage buyers who do not want to pay the price to get a proper calibration report from their suppliers. You can’t blame suppliers of this type of equipment for the problem. They work on the basis that if the customer is happy with a useless piece of paper and that is all that stands between them and an order, it’s cheaper for them to provide the paper.

When you look at the situation generically, the gage buyer wants a gage with a piece of paper that says it’s good. If the auditor accepts it, all is well. Whether the gage is good or bad doesn’t matter so much as having the paperwork to please the auditor. What amazes me in all of this is the acceptance of such junk paper by quality auditors.

I can see it all now. The wheels come off something, there’s a crash and some folks don’t survive it. After great study it is determined that the bolt thingie was to blame. The manufacturer claims it couldn’t be the bolt thingie because it was passed by a gage. And they know the gage was good because they have a certificate of compliance that says so.

The systems people may not be able to sort it out, but you can be sure a lawyer will spot the weasel words in one of these certificates. The reason for this is that it was probably a lawyer who wrote or reviewed the weasel words in the first place. Unfortunately, this would be a rather expensive way to find out, particularly if it was during a product liability court case.

Insurance companies are getting more interested in these matters of late when product liability coverage is involved. Their auditors may turn out to be more stringent than quality auditors and lawyers combined.





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