How to Talk with Your Kids about...Quality Improvement and Six Sigma

Dawn Keller 31 January, 2012

explaining six sigma to children - the 2nd most difficult conversation for quality engineersMy 6-year-old came home from school one day very excited to let me know that Maggie’s mommy was a doctor and she helped sick people get better. Seems Maggie's mommy was a “community hero.”

My unspoken response: “Not Maggie’s mommy again.” 

You see, in preschool, Maggie’s mommy remembered to send not one, but two rocks on “paint a rock” day.  I, sadly, forgot to send even a single rock. My daughter, without a rock, had to paint her clenched fist.

But I digress. Maggie’s mommy was, in fact, a wonderful doctor and very dear friend.  My spoken response was, “You are so right — we are so lucky to have community heroes like Maggie’s mommy.” There, done.

Well, I wish.  Instead, my daughter followed up with an extremely uncomfortable pair of questions: “What do you do, Mommy? Are you a community hero?”  (Is it just me, or is “community hero” day in first grade a quality engineer’s worst nightmare?)

I summoned up my excited voice. “I’m a quality engineer—I make software better!”  

“Did you make 'Angry Birds?'”  She could barely contain her excitement. Maggie’s mommy couldn’t hold a candle to the creators of “Angry Birds.” 

“No, Minitab makes statistical software.”  

Her disappointment was only slightly heartbreaking. “Okay...well, how do you make it?”

“Well, actually I don’t make it, I just make it better,” I said. (I couldn’t bear to let her know that I actually didn’t even make the software better myself—I simply managed people who made it better.)

I received a blank stare and a hesitant, “What does that mean?” At this point, she clearly was clinging to the hope that my response would be something worthy of sharing with someone…anyone.

This might be the second-most-uncomfortable discussion quality engineers ever have with their children. While we love what we do, it’s tough enough to explain to adults, let alone children. Despite my best efforts, my grandmother passed away still believing that I drove a train. Not that I didn’t try to explain, of course. I once attempted to share the details of my work in pharmaceutical packaging, but that resulted in her informing her home-health aide that I had fallen into, let’s say, “controlled-substance distribution.” I decided being a train engineer was simpler and wouldn’t result in having the feds on my trail.

But, I digress…again. I’m human, so I wanted my daughter to be as proud of me as she was of Maggie’s mommy. How could I illustrate the importance of statistics and quality improvement?M&M Data

The answer: M&Ms, of course.

So, that evening, I opened a bag of M&Ms and we sorted and counted each color:

Our results:
Orange - 20
Yellow -16
Brown - 17
Red - 11
Green - 21
Blue - 22

Next, we talked about the different attributes of the data we collected. What was the mean? What was the minimum and maximum? What was the total? We talked about how these characteristics were all things that quality engineers analyzed to make sure that customers, like my daughter, were always happy. 

So, for example, what if she got a bag of M&Ms that only had 10 pieces of candy in them?

Her reply? “That would be really bad. Especially if they were all orange.”

Exactly! Especially if they were all orange. That would be devastating. 

“Quality engineers,” I explained, “make sure stuff like that doesn’t happen. They make sure that the bag always contains about the same amount and that you always find about the same number of each color.” And, then, we opened Minitab and created a pie chart that represented the data that we collected. We could see that the bag we opened contained some of each color of M&M. 

 

Pie Chart of M&M Colors

Next, I talked to her about how engineers use Minitab to analyze data and processes to make sure that all the products in the world are made the way that we want them. I explained that the “rules” we have to follow are outlined in something we call a specification. And when specifications change, as they occasionally do, we adjust the process to deliver.

“For instance, what if the M&M people decided that bags of M&Ms should have more brown M&Ms than blue M&Ms?" I asked. "What would we do?”

“Why would they ever do that?”

“Because designers enjoy making the lives of engineers difficult, honey,” I answered. “That’s why.” 

(Okay, I really didn’t say that, or dive into the related idea of “scope creep.” That’s a lesson for next year. Instead, I went straight to the “how.” )

"We’d go to the machines that make brown and blue M&Ms and adjust how much they are making," I told her. (I should note that I’m aware that there probably isn’t a brown and blue M&M machine, but for the sake of my 6-year-old, it just needed to be that way.)

Finally, we ended with a discussion of how complex the products that we use really are. And, behind each of them is a team of engineers working to make sure that we’re always satisfied. 

A few weeks later I overheard my daughter telling her friends, including Maggie, that her mommy made M&Ms. In the world of a 6-year-old, the makers of M&Ms are also community heroes, and I'm human. For that reason, I chose to not clarify. At least, not right away.

Take that, Maggie’s mommy!