Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Six Sigma and random frequent flyer stuff

Being involved in around a dozen ISO 9001 certification audits each year, the topic of Six Sigma gets raised from time to time. At the risk of oversimplifying, Six Sigma seeks to reduce defects by improving processes. Of course that's the aim of all quality improvement activities, but the aim is to achieve no more than 3.4 failures per million events.

Most recently during an audit of our main North American office the auditor asked whether we would consider using Six Sigma in our environment. My initial reaction was that there is no way we could justify the rigour that would be needed to achieve so few bugs - we would take so long to get any product out the door that we would go broke. Of course you need to be careful saying things like that - it can be seen as heresy for someone in my position to be advocating "affordable quality". The other problem with Six Sigma is that it works best in a repetitive environment with enough operations or transactions to make statistical analysis feasible (e.g. a factory making 100,000 widgets a day). It's most probably not going to be the best tool in non-routine and highly variable environments.

The other thing which I've never been able to get past is that 3.4 defects per million just sounds impossibly close to perfection. Then of course the day after that audit I saw something which made me change my mind. I was on my way back home from Washington (via Dallas, Los Angeles and Sydney) and was reading the American Airlines in-flight magazine. In it there was a throw-away line that AA had 1.5 million flights in 2006. It occurred to me that if five of those flights had crashed, AA would still have satisfied Six Sigma requirements. Suddenly 3.4 failures per million didn't sound so great after all. Fortunately AA lost no aircraft last year - zero failures in 1.5 million events. Flying really is incredibly safe.

Random frequent flyer stuff

First random fact: At the start of my last round the world trip (actually technically it was the end of my previous one and the start of my current one, since they start and end in Colombo) I checked in at Canberra airport. I used the Qantas Club check-in and realised that there were four independent reasons why I was entitled to do so:
  1. I'm a Qantas Club member
  2. I was travelling Business Class
  3. I still have Qantas Frequent Flyer Silver status
  4. I have American Airlines Excecutive Platinum status
Any one of those is enough to use the check-in. All four seems a little like overkill.

Second random fact: At the moment I hold current frequent flyer cards for all three oneworld status levels:
  1. Silver status on Qantas (expiring in May), which is oneworld Ruby
  2. A Platinum card from American Airlines from my requalification in 2005 (with a stated validity until the end of February), which is oneworld Sapphire
  3. Executive Platinum status on American Airlines, which is oneworld Emerald.
Third random fact: With American Airlines there are three different ways to obtain status. One based on the number of Qualifying Miles earned, one based on the number of Qualifying Points earned (Q-Points can be higher or lower than Q-Miles depending on the class of fares purchased) and one based on the number of segments flown. My activity in 2006 saw me reach the targets for Executive Platinum based on Q-Points, Platinum based on Q-Miles and only Gold based on segments. Fortunately status is awarded on the highest of the three qualifying methods, so I'm top-tier for another year.

I expect this will be my last aviation-related post for a while. The first sod was due to be turned on our block of land today, so get ready for future rants about builders and sub-contractors.