Structured Quality Improvement: Quality Fable - Legitimizing Absenteeism

Quality Fable

This week I will not keep my promise of introducing Data Collection, the most misunderstood quality tool….the hatchery for COPQ.

On the contrary, I wish to share a Quality Fable, Legitimizing Absenteeism. You will be surprised to learn the root cause of absenteeism at a steel plant.

Quality Tools

Now that you have mastered:

…I wish to request you to explain Legitimizing Absenteeism, with a clinical mindset of Quality Tools, to your colleagues.

And to share with me…..What data do you wish to collect at the steel plant?

Legitimizing Absenteeism

A chronic problem at a steel plant in the late 1980s was absenteeism. There was nothing alarming about it as it was just under 1%.

So what did management do about it? They factored absenteeism into the operational plans and budget. Therefore at the stroke of a pen, absenteeism was legitimized at this steel plant!

The Quality Council, at the steel plant, selected absenteeism as one of the five pilot problems to be solved by the Juran on Quality Improvement (JQI) methodology. The business case for this selection included high visibility and ease of understanding the problem organization-wide.

But how can you eat an elephant in one bite? You can only eat it bite by bite, project by project. So the bite- sized pilot project for absenteeism was localized to the Tubes Division.

In defining the problem, it helps to estimate the Cost Of Poor Quality (COPQ). In the case of the Tubes Division, the Works Manager identified the following heads that he considered non-controversial:

  • The appointment of a daily ‘badli’ (substitute) worker, who is obviously not as well trained as the absent worker
  • The variation in tube lengths resulting from the ‘badli’ work. This led to an additional step of cutting and trimming the tubes, burdening production with more physical waste and loss of productivity.

All quite elementary. But what was the COPQ? A non-debatable INR 1,400,000 per month. Multiply that by 12 months and you have an alarming annual COPQ that corrodes the bottom line of business results.

The diagnostic journey involved meeting absent workers at home. One instance involved the following conversation in the afternoon at the home of a healthy looking absent worker:

“Why are you absent, Sardar?”
“My son is not well.”
“Is it serious?”
“No. Just a simple cough and cold.”
“In which case, why are you absent?”
“Sir. It’s like this. When I went to our on-site hospital, the paperwork took three hours. Then I waited in another line with my son to see the doctor. That was another hour. Thereafter, I waited for half an hour for the prescribed medication. By which time , sir, you had already marked me absent for the full day”.

The remedial journey lay in re-engineering the admissions procedure at the on-site hospital. This process was reduced from three hours to 30 minutes.

The results from cracking this project had a multiplier impact on the entire campus of the steel plant. What I did not mention earlier is that the Tubes Division was the smallest manufacturing unit at the campus.

Lessons Learned

  • Chronic problems should not be legitimized in the budget
  • Use a structured problem-solving methodology
  • Elephant-sized problems must be broken into digestible bite-sized projects
  • When estimating COPQ, work with non-controversial factors and non-debatable numbers
  • See the problem with your own eyes
  • Improvement projects should always be approved by senior management


Conduct an autopsy of a flow diagram. The power of seeing with your own eyes is unmatched.

Ask any surgeon!

  • Author :

    Suresh Lulla

  • Resource Link :


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