For more than 20 years, Rai Chowdhary has been an entrepreneur and an aficionado of excellence. He is well-known from his books, seminars, workshops, and speeches, which he delivers across the world. On that journey, Chowdhary has served world-leading organizations from Fortune 100 corporations to smaller outfits as well.
As an inventor he has several new products, technologies, and patents to his credit, and as an author he has been actively publishing books since 2005.
Chowdhary did his undergraduate studies in mechanical and production engineering from Mumbai University and graduate study in engineering (materials) science from Arizona State University. He is certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality engineer, quality manager, and Exemplar Global auditor for quality management systems as well as ISO 13485.
Over the years he has founded several companies, the last one being BLOXR, (where he was the co-founder) which produces lead-free medical devices and the world’s first X-ray radiation shielding cream. He exited from that in 2014 and started The KPI System, based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In this profile, we talk with Chowdhary about his early-life quality lessons, the value of management system auditing, and why performance improvement professionals shouldn’t get overly hung up on tools.
EXEMPLAR GLOBAL: Performance improvement, I know, is near and dear to your heart. How did you discover your passion for PI?
RAI CHOWDHARY: That goes back to the early 1960s, when I used to accompany my father on his business visits to suppliers and customers. He had two businesses at the time—an auto parts store, and a rubber and plastic products manufacturing company. He felt that we should never lose sight of the fact that we can always do better. He always wondered “How can my product be better?” or “How can a supplier give me better parts?” On every business visit, that’s what I would see.
At the time, we had a 1951 Chevy. In Mumbai, where I grew up, it rains very hard. The water would get on the distributor and short out the electrical circuits, and the car would stall on the road. Then we would be standing there, with our umbrellas, getting wet, trying to burn pieces of cloth to warm up the distributor to dry it out. It was just a total mess! And he would tell me, “Why can’t this be made better? Why does it have to be that moisture finds its way onto the circuits?” So as you can see, performance improvement got injected into my DNA from a young age.
EG: And that was a time long before anyone knew about ISO 9001.
RC: Correct. My father used to talk about quality, manufacturing, and product design all the time. After he passed away in 1967, I continued the journey of performance improvement in products, manufacturing areas, quality systems, quality processes, and metrics in our companies. I applied it all over the place. What I realized is when your customer finds out that you have a mindset for process improvement, and the improvements are going to be a benefit to them, they don’t want to leave you. Not only that, they used to tell me that on certain products, they were willing to pay me more. How many times will a customer tell you that? That is when it really hit home in my heart that relentless improvement is an absolute must. It also dawned on me that performance improvement should be thought of in more than one dimension. You need to look at it in a balanced way. What that means is, you can improve the total throughput in your factory, but you should not ignore the waste that might result. What are the downsides to boosting that production? I came to realize that performance improvement done in only one dimension can become harmful to the company, employee, society, and customers.
EG: You mentioned customers would be willing to pay you more given your quality. That’s an interesting aspect of this because so many people think of quality as a cost center, but they don’t realize that, when you do it right and you have a culture of quality throughout the organization and your customers see that quality can actually be a profit-making venture.
RC: Yes, quality leads to profits, but you must know how to present yourself and improve in the dimensions that matter to the customer. Then, it becomes a profit center; otherwise, it will be a cost center. The question is, does the customer care? Companies waste tons and tons of money on making products which are technical delights. The Concorde (the supersonic plane for commercial aviation) is a great example. A technical delight, right? What happened? Total commercial failure! And there are many, many products like that which I can cite over my years.
EG: How did you find your way to auditing, and what has been its importance in your career?
RC: I spoke of my father earlier, but both of my parents were involved in our business in the 1960s. My mother would check on how the employees were carrying out their work, because we had trained them on certain practices. Every now and then we would find defects. Now, these were compression-molded products or injection-molded products, so sometimes the flash was not trimmed right, the mold had short filings, or the mold did not close properly, and the flash was too thick. In some cases, the runners and the sprues were way too thick, or the product did not cure properly because the temperature was low, or the cure time was off. A lot of these were manual processes at that time; today the presses are all automated so some of those issues are non-existent today. In any event, we had taught the employees the correct way to run the molding process and how to make the molds properly, but mistakes happen. Sometimes it was carelessness because people got in a hurry and didn’t do the job right. My mother would audit their work. In those days we didn’t call it an “audit”—we used the term “check.” It was like a quality check or a process check or whatever you want to call it. This check process would alert the operators that their work is subject to checking anytime, and that they needed to stick with the best-known methods that we had taught them. But one thing that my mom did was when she found a deviation, she would not penalize the operator. She would simply ask them, “You know, I see the flash on this was too thick,” or “I see the dimension here was off, can you tell me what happened?” And this is the 1960s. It created an atmosphere where the employees would feel free to say, “Oh well, I must have forgotten to turn off the press at a certain time,” or “I did not close the press properly,” etc. and they would talk about it. We would ask them “OK, how do we make sure this does not happen again?” They would come up with ideas on how to prevent those nonconformances (we used to call them defects) from repeating. So that is where the roots of auditing took hold in my psyche.
EG: It sounds very similar to the Toyota Production System and quality circles. I would imagine that through that auditing or check process, ideas that would come up to improve the process in question vs. the standard.
RC: You are absolutely right. I’ll give you one simple example. The steering system on a car has bellows that cover the rack-and-the-pinion assembly that prevent dust from getting in. We used to make those bellows, and our daily production rate was about 45 in a shift. I did a study called activity sampling, which is kind of a work study in which you look at the work content and you try to figure out where the waste is. We asked the employees, “Why are cutting the raw material this way” and “Why are we filling the mold that way?” or “When the mold is outside the press, can that press be used in a certain way to keep it utilized and create more throughput without compromising quality?” They started coming up with lots of ideas—and we of course created some financial incentives as well. Over a period of time the number of bellows we made in a shift went from 45 to 48 per day, then to 55, then to 65, then to 70. Our final production from one person and one press was 120 bellows, minimum, every day. So where is 45 and where is 120?
EG: Almost three times the amount.
RC: And quality was not compromised. Think about that!
EG: I’d like to ask about training. How has training improved your career?
RC: There are three important lessons I can share. Lesson No. 1: The half-life of training is very short. If you learn a new subject, I bet you in a matter of one or two days, 75 percent to 80 percent of what you’ve learned is gone. You must tie the training to a project or tie it to something you’re going to do very quickly, and reinforce those things very, very fast. I take a lot of notes, and I quickly revise or go back and check the notes to gather the main points and reinforce those within the first week. I do it two or three times in that week so it kind of refreshes and it sticks in my mind. People say, why do I need to remember things because I can always look up something. But if you are the passenger in a plane and the pilot says, “Give me two minutes before takeoff, I need to check my user manual for this plane,” are you going to be comfortable? Or let’s say you are on the operating table and before the surgery the doctor says, “Oh, I need to figure out how to cut that vein properly.” Are you kidding me? There are certain things that you really have to know without having to look up… it has to be embedded in your muscle memory.
Lesson No. 2: Stay teachable all the time. Life will teach you lessons, your work will teach you lessons, and your customers will teach you lessons. My dad used to tell me, “Learn from the customer.” Your customer will teach you if you are teachable. Your employees will teach you if you are teachable. We must stay teachable all the time.
Lesson No. 3: There are many gurus in quality, just like there are many gurus in finance or marketing. Some of these will speak ill of other gurus and their ideas. That confuses the heck out of the followers and the audience, because when they read one expert’s viewpoints and then another expert’s viewpoints, they see the conflict. My philosophy is, take the good that everyone has to offer and leave their backbiting to them. You can learn from everyone, so take the good from here, take the good from there, apply it in your work, synthesize it, internalize it, and do the right thing for you and for your organization.
EG: That’s really well said. This is an interesting, exciting time… there are opportunities and obstacles for people coming into this field now, not only because of COVID, but because of technological change, too. What advice would you give someone who is starting out right now who plans to make this field their career’s journey?
RC: Boy, there are so many points to cover there. First, I would say, be careful of social media. It is good, but it is a double-edged sword. It will become a time-hog and can consume you.
Second, if you don’t know how to code, learn. Don’t say that coding is not for me. No, no, no… that’s nonsense. Today, with all the tools available, you can learn coding and statistical methods. People talk about quality, but when it comes to analysis and statistical methods, the bottom just falls out and they just rely on a software package. Now, I’m not saying software packages are bad, I use them all the time, but you’ve got to understand what is happening in that black box. I’ll give you a very simple example: The average of 50 and 0 is 25, and the average of 24 and 26 is also 25. The problem is, 0 and 50 have a huge variation, and then on top of that there can be outliers, so people do all kinds of analysis without really understanding the nitty-gritty details of how clean the data is and what the data is really telling them. We can be data-rich and information-poor at the same time. One way to pull yourself out and think clearly is to understand the data, learn how to code, learn how to do the statistical analysis. Use software packages, but don’t just blindly rely on the automated sub-routines and algorithms that run in the background. Understand the math behind it. Today, most people don’t take the time to understand the math… they just click a button and get an answer. No! You need to find out if there’s outliers in your data or face the consequences of grossly wrong decisions. Throughout all of my graduate study, nobody ever questioned me about gage R&R, the repeatability and reproducibility of an instrument. That’s also part of data analysis. Ours is a data-driven society and we can’t escape it. Data is all around us, and you’d better get a handle on doing proper analysis.
Also, start understanding machine learning and artificial intelligence. This is also all around us! Harness the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence in your work. I am using that today; I recently learned AI to an extent and I’m beginning to learn more. Age and past experiences don’t matter. The future is going to be what you create for yourself to a great extent. Otherwise, the world will pass you by and you will be standing there watching what happened, saying, “I could have been on that train, but that train is gone.” Don’t make excuses! There are so many online programs that step-by-step teach you coding, data analysis, AI, and machine learning. So get on that, definitely be on that journey, stay teachable, question, and watch your ego. Don’t let your ego get ahead of you. Even if you get an MBA from an Ivy League school or you get a high-level certification or whatever, don’t let ego stand in your way. Stay humble, stay teachable. Those are key points that I would recommend to new entrants in this field.
Final point: Don’t get hung up on tools. Tools and techniques have their place… when I talk about tools what I mean is 5S, FMEA, 5 Whys, 7 Wastes, DOE, SPC, Cpk analysis, etc. You have to know what tool to use and when, and you also need to know the limitations of each tool. I’ve audited dozens of companies. When we look at their CAPA, their corrective and preventive action, the tool that they use most often is the 5 Whys. But why stop at the fifth why? Why not go to the seventh why? And if you took this chain of whys, you are in that narrow channel, whereas there might be other causes as well. What about those causes that lie outside this chain of thought? If you ask why enough times, you will end up at the footsteps of God. What do I mean? I’ll give you an example. I was once analyzing materials for a hip joint. We found there were some impurities, so we started asking the five whys: Why did this impurity happen? Well, it must have come from the furnace. Why did it get into the furnace? Well, it must have been in the raw material. Why did it get in the raw material? Well, the ingot manufacturer probably introduced it, or it came in the ore. OK, great, so why did it come in the ore? Well, the ore was mined from a mine in Chile. Why did the impurity get into the mine in Chile? Now, who are you going to ask? Who made that mine, who made that mountain? You are at the footsteps of God! Last but not the least, don’t lose sight of the fact that eventually it is a person who will implement the corrective/preventive actions. If they are not onboard, use of all tools is in vain.
EG: Eventually, you get to the point where it’s irreducible… that’s as far back as we can go.
RC: This whole notion about root cause… you have to be very careful. What we end up doing, then, is we draw a line somewhere where we can put some controls in place and we can say, “This is the root cause.” That was not the root cause! That was the point at which you can control something. The root cause was in the mine or beyond… good luck finding that! Interestingly enough, the word “root” does not show up in ISO 9001:2015, however “cause” does.