Monday, March 21, 2011

837 Six Sigma

837 Six Sigma

Without getting into the gory details, it’s a statistical way of making manufacturing and management more, well, manageable and even of making what you make better. It’s complicated, difficult to understand and very fashionable, especially among some of the larger companies.

One of those larger companies is General Electric. Six Sigma pioneers. Once major advocates. And what did adopting this rat’s nest of a “system” do? Depends on who’s asked.

Since GE has moved some of its most important products (progress included) off shore, it’s hard to tell. Are GE light bulbs made in the Czech Republic and China any better than those that were made in Schenectady? Again, hard to tell.

All this is in prelude to the water heater in the basement. Two and one half months old. It’s made by the very reputable Rheem folks, right here in the good old US of A. And it’s sold by GE under the GE name.

So the other morning in the kitchen, comes the sound of major water flow. No one else in the house is up. Where’s it coming from? The basement. The brand new Six Sigma-approved General Electric water heater. Water is pouring out of a faceplate that covers an electrical connection. Pouring! Electrical connection. Two inches or so on the basement floor. About to the point where it’s going to start lapping up on a fair number of stored, wooden musical instruments which means death by drowning.

The heater is powered by electricity. But the infernal machine is on plastic legs, so probably wading into the water won’t result in a fatal shock. Obviously, it didn’t. Your correspondent is still writing.

The installer was a next door neighbor, a fine young fellow with a license and expertise in HVAC. He and I went to Home Despot and bought the thing and carried it home on his truck. He installed it. Thing works like magic. Until Flood Morning.

A call next door, and he says “I’ll be right over.” Around here that can mean “any day now.” But this time it’s for real. He’s RIGHT over. Turns off the water. Turns off the electrical connection, heads for Home Despot to buy the failed part. Says call the warranty hot line.

Calling the warranty hot line is like calling the dead. “Please listen, as our menu options have changed.” Twenty minutes later we reach a live operator who says (a) NO! You can’t have your neighbor, the licensed, bonded, smart, educated HVAC guy install a new part and (b) You’re covered under a labor warranty. We will send out a technician, a contractor.”

And she asks for the serial number. Ankle deep in water and she wants a serial number. Stumbling through that was a task. “Too many numbers,” she says. Finally she gets the number right. Then she wants a model number. It’s not WH-23 or anything that simple. It’s 0357DA423M457A625.” Who can see that, especially when standing ankle deep in water with electric current lurking and not much daylight in the basement.

“Thank you, sir. We’ll have a technician contact you within one business day.” What? “Suppose I have my friend, a licensed plumber/HVAC fellow install the part?” “No, sir. You have to have our contractor.” Neighbor returns with a part and installs it, and then helps sweep the water into the drain. The heater works perfectly. The leak is gone. Hours pass. No word from GE.

Finally, GE calls. “We don’t have a contractor in your area. We are FedEx-ing you the part. Please find someone to do the work and send us the bill.”

At this point, the work already is done. The floor is drying. The place is a mess, but we have hot water.

We tell GE “thank you, we’ll do that and send you the bill.” She says “fine, here’s your claim number...” It’s six digits. And she has a desk light by which to read it.

The next morning, the part arrives early enough for the FedEx door bell ringer to wake up the entire house.

Also the next morning, we get an e-mail from GE, touting its repair services and “expert contractors in your neighborhood.”

Thank goodness for expert neighbors who’ve probably never heard of Six Sigma.


--Before Six Sigma, GE stock was selling in the mid to high 60s. Now it’s selling in the high teens to low 20s. There were market forces involved, but probably the Magic Formulas didn’t help.

--Six Sigma was invented by people at Motorola. At the time, they were the largest maker of cell phones. Take a look at the shape they’re in today.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2011

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