The Crash: Chapter Eight
The story so far... Jason Jackson-Jones, founder and Managing Director of Triple J Auto Parts of Sheffield, has just had to replace his Engineering Manager - the previous one quit after a dispute over quality and safety issues. In this chapter, Jason and his newest recruit, Brad, are put on the spot by one of Jason's oldest clients, Harry. Can Brad help Jason scramble out of the hole he's dug for himself, or will this be the beginning of the end for the self-made businessman?
It was only when Jason stood to usher Brad to a seat at the board room table, that he noticed he'd been digging his nails into his palms since his stupid mistake with Damian. His fingers ached from clenching, and there were ruts in his palms where his nails had been pressed in. He stretched his fingers and turned to Brad, intending to introduce him to the others, but Brad was already turning to the visitors with a smile. Jason wondered if he'd still be smiling if he knew everything Jason did. Probably he would. He seemed like the cheerful sort.
"Hello. I'm Brad. Engineering Manager. I've started this week, so I'm only just settling in, but do ask if there's anything I can help you with, and I'll see what I can do.
"Thank you," Harry smiled back, looking more relaxed than he had earlier, before Brad entered the room. "I'm Harry, Managing Director, and this is my son Damian, who's just joined the company permanently. He knows his way around already, because he's worked with us every holiday during his degree."
"That must have been a big help. What did you study?"
"Resistant Materials at Crewe. I'm looking forward to putting some of the things I've learned into practice."
"I bet. It's very interesting seeing how things you've seen in theory play out in real life, isn't it? I've enjoyed taking some of the theories from my MBA and testing them out in the real world. They're surprisingly useful, although sometimes they can be much harder to put into practice than I expected."
"Do any of those theories involve quality?" Harry asked, with a wry smile which struck fear into Jason's heart. He thought about stepping in, but wasn't sure what he could say that would make a difference. Anyway, he comforted himself, it would be interesting to see how his new Engineering Manager handled the challenge.
"Yes, we looked at kaizen, of course, continuous improvements, and some stuff around Goldratt's theory of constraints and how that affects performance and quality. I'll be interested to see how much of it's already being implemented, and what I can bring in to help. I always think even the best run company benefits from a fresh eye, especially where quality is concerned. It's so easy to slip into that rut of 'how we've always done it,' isn't it?"
Jason's jaw seemed to have been filled with magnets as his mouth snapped tight shut at the implied criticism, his teeth grinding painfully. OK, so he was beginning to realise that he deserved the criticism. He'd done things the same way - as cheaply as possible - for too long, and the world had moved on past him. With the increased emphasis on safety nowadays, and the greater threat of lawsuits, you couldn't get away with shoddy work. But with the economic pressures that were biting every business to a greater or lesser extent, you needed to cut costs - he'd been right there. But lower costs meant lower quality and increased risk, unless you worked a lot smarter. And Jason wasn't sure that he had the ideas or the confidence any more to pull off a big change. For the first time, he realised how much he needed a good Engineering Manager to get him out of this hole. As long as Brad turned out to be the right person for the job, he might just have got lucky and found the extra resource he needed to turn things around.
And it all started here, with Harry and Damian.
Harry looked at Brad for a long moment and then answered, "Yes, it's easy to let things slip. Has Jason told you why we're here today?"
Shit. Another chance for Jason to look like a fool, or worse. He waited for Brad to complain that Jason had kept him in the dark, but Brad gave an easy smile.
"No," he said, honestly, "I'm sorry. I've only just got in and I haven't had a chance to find out the background to the meeting. Would one of you mind filling me in?" He looked from Harry to Jason, and waited, apparently confident both that an explanation would be forthcoming, and that it would prove satisfactory.
Jason opened his mouth to start, "Jepsons have complained..." At the same moment, Harry opened his mouth and began, "We've been having problems..." He subsided to let Jason continue, but although Jason had mixed feelings about hearing what Harry had to say, he knew it was often a good thing to let an unhappy customer vent.
"You go on," Jason gave a gracious wave, and Harry paused uncomfortably before continuing, "As I was saying, we've been having some problems with the quality of the parts we've been receiving from Triple J Auto Parts. We'd decided to cancel the order, but Jason persuaded us here today. I came in with no intention of changing my mind, but we've got such a long-standing relationship that it seemed rude not to give Jason a chance to put things right." He'd been looking at Brad as he spoke, but on that last statement he turned his head to the Managing Director and gave him a reluctant half-smile.
"Thank you," Jason said. "I appreciate that."
Before Jason could say anything more, Brad chipped in with a request: "Would anyone mind if Harry and Damian fill me in on what they do with our components, and what the problems have been? Whether or not they decide to cancel the order, it would help me to understand what I'm working with and what the issues might me."
Jason wasn't keen on hearing yet more about the problems, but he hadn't done too well so far from trying to keep the issue at bay, and both Gaby and Brad seemed to be building up a bit of a rapport with Harry, so maybe it would be better if he stepped back for a bit.
"Sure, go ahead," he agreed.
"OK," Harry in turn accepted. "Well, we have three types of components: plates, hinges, and springs. The plates have never been a problem, but the last couple of months we've had too high a failure rate on the hinges and springs. We've had seven per cent of hinges and nine per cent of springs fail on test, which costs us. And then there's the issue of being able to rely on the quality of the parts we use. It's not acceptable, and I'm sure there are other sources out there of quality parts at a price we can afford. In fact, we've already started testing a small batch using another supplier, who I won't name."
"No, that's fine," Brad said thoughtfully. "I don't need to know who they are. Can you tell me a bit about your testing process?"
"Of course." Harry outlined the stringent tests that were performed on the components.
Jason frowned. No wonder Harry was getting a high failure rate. Their tests were twice as strict as the legal minimum, which Jason and APMA had helped to set. Jason doubted if any of the other companies Harry could go to would live up to his requirements either. But that wasn't the point. If he changed, it could be months before he discovered his error and came back. Jason didn't want that. He didn't want to lose the Jepsons order, and he didn't want to change steel supplier, which he was pretty sure was the only solution to keeping the order. Catch 22.
"How does that compare to the tests we do?" Brad asked, and Jason hesitated for a moment before answering reluctantly, "That's a bit more than we do."
"Could we increase the stringency of our tests?"
"We could, but of course it'd increase the price of the parts, because the failure rate would be higher. Either that, or through the cost of higher grade steel. One way or another, what you're asking for would cost." By this time, he was talking directly to Harry, not Brad.
“I realise that,” Harry said. “But there are things more important than cost.”
Easy to say, thought Jason sourly. Did that mean Harry would be happy to absorb some of the cost? He severely doubted it. Oh well, only one way to find out.
“So does that mean you’d be willing to pay a quality premium if you’re looking for more than the legal minimum?”
“Well...” Harry immediately began hedging. “I don’t know. I mean, if it went up more than a few per cent, it’d be cheaper to switch suppliers. I know there are others who offer a higher guaranteed success rate.”
"It might not be necessary," Brad said thoughtfully. "How about we take a walk around the factory and have a chat about what you need from us and why, and we'll see what we can figure out?"
Harry looked a little dubious, but he could hardly refuse.
The four of them headed out to reception. Donna was on the phone, which wasn't surprising. Speaking to people was a receptionist's job, but if it had been a business call, she presumably wouldn't have ended it with, "Sorry, gotta go, boss's here," and slammed down the phone as if it would turn to red-hot lava in her hand if Jason saw it there. Pity. She'd seemed pretty reliable to start with, but lately there had been a few more of these surreptitious conversations, and then there was the wimpy way she'd emailed him about Lucy instead of speaking to him. Maybe she wasn't quite the strong, independent woman he'd thought her in her interview.
Which brought a further unpleasant thought hot on its heels. What if Gaby or Brad turned out not to be the godsend they seemed? His diary was in Gaby's hands, which meant she had the potential to cause chaos if she didn't keep proper track of his appointments and deadlines, although so far, mercifully, she seemed both competent and confident. And as for Brad... right now, he was set to take their biggest client, an account Jason was on the verge of losing, around the factory, letting him see the production processes that were the source of all the contention, and potentially making promises that Jason had no idea whether they could keep or not. And if Jason wanted Jepsons to stay a customer, there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.
He pasted a smile onto his face and gestured for Brad to pick up protective equipment for them all.
"Lay on Macduff," he said, sticking on the yellow earthing strip Brad handed him, and following the new manager through the sound-proofed doors.
If Brad answered, his response was lost in the clatter of machinery.