My first lesson about Quality

When I left school, one of the first summer jobs I had, was in a local Bakery. This is where I learnt some really important quality lessons, which have stayed with me for life and have been just as relevant in healthcare as they were in industry and manufacturing. One lesson is the subject of this blog. 

It was a smallish factory but it needed a big seasonal workforce over holiday periods, cream cakes in the summer, hot cross buns at Easter and mince pies at Christmas.  I started out making ‘Japp Cakes’, these were little almond soft meringues, filled with buttercream followed with buttercream decoration on the top.

The only training I had for the job was – here is a pallet knife, then a 2 minute explanation from the foreman.  That was it.  Usually, I had about 500 cakes to make a day, but I only had to fill them with cream, someone else iced the top.  This was because the icing on the top was a little more skilled!  You needed to be able to pipe with a piping bag. 

Needless to say, it didn’t take long to become quite proficient with a pallet knife, although I often had problems finding one that wasn’t in use and also finding wheels on which to stack the trays of completed cakes.  I soon learnt how to while away time using this as an excuse, I would walk around the bakery looking for stuff, talking to other staff and helping them, rather than do my own work as it was a little boring, plus as I was paid by the hour there wasn’t much incentive to work quickly. 

However, the bakery was growing it’s customers and production but this wasn’t matched by it’s capacity. There was a lot of chaos at the end of the day when lots of things still hadn’t been completed, this led to a lot of aggravation amongst the staff, with many permanent staff blaming the student workers for being slow and not finishing and making them stay late (unless they wanted the overtime).  

To help this problem, sometimes I was reallocated in the afternoons to the creamery department to make strawberry fruit tarts.  This was a more interesting job because there were lots of students working in this area, and due to the demand (and the fact that the production schedule didn’t start this work until the afternoon, I never understood why…might have been failure demand!), I usually got some overtime pay.  So it was fun, more hours, more money, but came with downsides, lots of temporary student workers competing to work there (it only had 4 workstations), and having to work in a cold room, it is quite hard cutting strawberries with cold fingers!

Now, instead of wondering how to waste more time in the day, my problem was how can I make the cakes more quickly so I could work in the cold room sooner as it was way more interesting, and help this production finish on time, calming down some of the permanent/temporary workforce dis-harmony, (and I could wear more clothes under my uniform).  My solution was to help myself, by not wasting time all morning looking for things and doing all the piping as well as the filling, to evidence that I could pipe the patisserie cream for the strawberry tarts!  Brilliant, I thought I could be in complete control of the whole task, and decide for myself when it was finished and then, I could be first in the queue to be reassigned to the cold room.

So I did the whole lot, assembling and decorating.  All 500 of that day’s batch of production, and I finished just before lunch and I was pretty pleased with myself, and went to report for duty in the cream room.  2-3 hours later the foreman came looking for me and asked me if I had finished the cakes, I said yes but he said, to come and look at them, and promptly completely criticised all the cakes in front of a room of about 20 staff.  The problem was unsurprisingly given my lack of training and expertise that my piping wasn’t very good!  The decoration and filling was uneven, there were spills and drips and some were much bigger than others.  No product consistency at all. I was completely humiliated and I spent the afternoon scraping off the decoration and reassembling the cakes so that a more experienced confectioner could re-ice them, (I did get paid overtime for this though, in fact the quality defects cost quite a lot of money from wasted product that couldn’t be recovered, time and additional pay! Ooops). At least nobody got hurt or harmed from these defects, unlike in other sectors. 

My learning from all that, was not that different from most quality principles, although I didn’t know it at the time

1. Training in standard work that leads to proficiency in tools and methods and understanding regarding the product’s quality , can’t be skimped.

2.  Staff need adequate tools for their jobs (in my case pallet knifes and wheels!)

3. Doing things in large batches means quality problems aren’t spotted until the end, leading to wasted effort, products, delays time and money!  ‘Inspect’ as you go, build quality in, get it right first time. 

4.  There was no visual management, communications or in-process checks either, thus the foreman and despatch (the process I delivered to), didn’t find out about the problem for another 3 hours, luckily though, before they were despatched to the customer. I only found out what I needed to do each day through general conversation and asking around generally, if anything had changed!

5. Match capacity with demand. The bakery had tried, that is why more temporary student workers had been hired, however the demand for man-hours was later in the day, and we could have all been asked to start work at lunchtime or on an evening shift. Perhaps the production schedules could have been more dynamic during the seasonal work too, linked more to daily demand for goods.

6. Did the incentives for all the staff align to the organisational goals? I wanted more hours and to work in a fun environment, so I speeded up the boring part of my job to maximize that opportunity, leading to unanticipated quality problems (I definitely hadn’t planned on doing a bad job!). 

After that, I didn’t get allocated to the cream room again for quite a long time!!  I had to master the art of Japp cake making for the rest of the summer, with a lot more scrutiny from the foreman of what I was doing and much less autonomy!  Do you think I used my own initiative again? 

On reflection now, there was no improvement forum or indeed any venue for staff to offer ideas or suggest issues for resolution, and to be honest, I doubt the student workforce would have suggested anything, the overtime money was too valuable. We didn’t have any training in any improvement skills either. Like so many organisations, we all put up with the chaos when it was busy, the system was just designed like that, there was nothing to be done about it nor time to do it, besides think of the overtime money, but did/do the staff have ideas of what could be better, better safety, better quality, better experience, better morale, lower cost….definitely!

Incidentally, this factory doesn’t exist any more, following a takeover a few years later, it was closed and there is a housing estate on it’s former site now.


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