Basis of Quality - What I learnt in my first years at work

On the 17th of January 1972, with 70+ others, I started as a cadet at CSR. This early work experience set the stage for how I approached the rest of my life at work. I'm come to the conclusion that these early formative experiences are crucial to a persons' performance and attitude for their entire working life. Breaking these early patterns can be impossible for some.

The cadets of my intake had the privilege to have unrivaled experiential life lessons in quality, safety, team building & working, skills development and personal responsibility.

The lessons I took with me into my career:
  • Quality workmanship and precision techniques
  • Formal quality techniques and analyses
  • Following precise analytical processes
  • Managing high work loads and meeting tight deadlines
  • Responsibility for high-value processes/outcomes
  • Satisfying stringent customer requirements
  • Respect for, coping with and managing work in dangerous
    environments - and experience in handling/responding to hazardous
  • And doing time sheets and "filling in the paper work" as a natural part of things.

My first 2 years of full time work as a cadet chemical engineer at CSR Ltd saw me personally responsible every day for $10M’s of product – performing sugar analysis for the whole of the Australian sugar crop. At the time the price of sugar was at an all time high. Each of us played our part in process - no one person did it all, but one person could botch the work of a whole team, or even a whole days' work.

At these NATA certified laboratories, we were trained in Chemical Analysis - but also safety and quality methods - with lives and ‘real money’ at stake.

Routinely large quantities of flammable and explosive alcohols, and highly toxic and corrosive acids were used and safely disposed of.

Deadlines were tight and fixed – each day samples for 50-100,000 tonnes of raw sugar and full analysis had to be delivered with a very high degree of accuracy and certainty that same day.

Speed, precision and absolute dependability were instilled in us alongside a clear knowledge of the value and consequences of our work - and mistakes.

We were tutored in analytical techniques, trained in reading and following exactly processes, statistical analysis, fire and safety (OH&S) skills, certified first-aid and our duties and responsibilities to our clients - the sugar producers.

It was expected that "people make mistakes" - the first rule of any precise analysis is the error range (+/- ??). The system was designed consistently to produce accurate, repeatable results with a very low margins of error. Calibrated samples were fed through the process alongside multiple samples and any 'repeats' that had failed the checking process. The performance of individual analysts and groups was tracked and monitored. People were assigned to tasks suited to their particular talents - based on objective results, not presumption or basis.

We all acquired robust team working skills. Along with how to do the boring things like time sheets with exactitude.

The next year I spent working as an Analyst in the Pyrmont Sugar Refinery.

Lots of routine and tight deadlines - and the same attention to detail, importance of results and a necessity to understand 'the big picture'.

There'd been an analyst, an ex-secretary, who'd dropped her (mercury) thermometer into the 'product stream'. She hadn't realised it was a problem, and a few hundred tons of sugar had to be thrown away and the process shutdown for cleaning. A tad expensive - many more times her wage and the cost of training and supervision to prevent.

My routine work led to uncovering a systematic problem with a very simple and preventable cause. We had a power station on-site - a real live coal burning, electricity and high-pressure steam (50 atmosphere?) producing plant. It used enough coal that when a fire in the furnace hopper caused a malfunction, the whole of the Sydney CBD was covered in a thick pall of black smoke - which made the TV news.

The plant feed-water was supposed to be closely maintained near a neutral pH - not acidic. A test station was on the factory floor, with a reagent bottle next to it. The reagent ran out, so I made a new batch - only to find that the measurements were now grossly wrong. The bottle was stored without a lid and slowly evaporated and concentrated. Over a couple of years, the pH measurement had slowly drifted and the water pushed way out of spec.

Serendipitously a major explosion or equipment failure was avoided. Replacement of the power-station, and shutting down the whole of the Pyrmont facility dependent on it for a couple of years, would've seriously impacted the whole company.

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