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Frank Saia’s perspective

Frank Saia has been a long time employee of Hughes Aircraft, and is currently faced with one of the most difficult decisions of his career. He was having problems in the environmental testing phase of his microchip manufacturing plant, and the problems were making him late in delivering the chips to his customers.

Saia began his career at Hughes 35 years ago in 1951. As a physics major from Boston College, he took a job on the east coast for a few years, but soon was enticed to move out to California to work for Hughes. As the electronics age began, Saia was one of the engineers at Hughes whose job grew and changed as the technology he designed and manufactured changed.

Today, he is in charge of manufacturing for the entire microcircuit product line that Hughes produces. This means hundreds of different kinds of microchips, and thousands of versions of those chips on the manufacturing floor at any one time. Several hundred people report to him, indirectly, through what seems to be a slowly increasing group of assistant managers and general supervisors.

Hughes makes computer chips for the US military. And the chips Saia was in charge of making would be used in many different military applications, including F-14 and F-15 fighter aircraft, air-to-air missiles, the M-1 tank, Phoenix missiles, etc. Many of the chips were part of guidance systems for missiles or targeting systems for tanks and aircraft. These battlefield systems undergo tremendous environmental stress from dust, vibration and impact, heat and cold, and long term exposure. Thus the chips needed to be able to withstand these environmental pressures for the life of their service. This is where the environmental testing group came in. They tested the chips before they were sent out to their customers, often other divisions of Hughes who were assembling aircraft or weapons. They, in turn sold the assembled aircraft and weapons to the US government.

Because of the time pressure to deliver chips, Frank Saia had been working to make the production of chips more efficient without losing the quality of the product. Chips are manufactured and then tested, and this provides two places where the process can bottle up. Even though you might have a perfectly fine chip on the floor of the plant, it cannot be shipped without testing. And, since there are several thousand other chips waiting to be tested, it can sit in line for a long time. Saia devised a method that allowed them to put the important chips, the "hot parts," ahead of the others without disrupting the flow and without losing the chips in the shuffle. This let hot parts get through faster and meant they could meet the order volume they needed.

But Saia was not only concerned with getting parts through quickly. When a subordinate suggested they cut a test he had added, his reply was " It is the worst thing you can do to ship bad parts." The test he had added both helped to assure quality parts and to make the testing go more quickly. It was called the "gross leak" test and it could quickly tell if a chip in a sealed container was actually sealed or not. Adding this test early in the testing sequence allowed them to not waste time testing chips that would fail a more fine grained leak test later in the sequence.

Saia was proud of his reputation as a problem solver. He had another reputation too, one that often worked in his favor, but of which he was less proud. He had a temper. And when the line backed up and parts would be delayed, he made sure everyone knew exactly how he felt about it. Hughes was a military contractor, and they hired many military people. Saia ran his section with military strictness and made sure people did their jobs.

So, when he heard that the environmental testing area was behind again, he called in Don LaRue to let him know how he felt about it. How did he feel? He was angry and he was insistent that he would not be embarrassed by late shipments. Saia was getting regular calls from Karl Reismueller, the director of the Division of Microelectronics at Hughes. Reismueller made it clear that the parts had to get out the door. In addition, Reismueller had given Saia's telephone number to several of the customers for the chips, whose own production lines were shut down awaiting the parts that Saia was having trouble delivering. His customers were now calling him directly to say "we're dying out here" for need of parts.

Don LaRue, the general supervisor in charge of the environmental testing area, was sure to be unhappy any time that Frank Saia was unhappy. They both began to look for ways to speed up the delivery of chips. LaRue was already putting "hot parts" at the front of the line for testing, and this was not enough. Saia applied more pressure. He told LaRue to baby-sit the parts all the way through the process, from one test to the next, and make sure they pass.

But now Saia has heard that LaRue has actually been skipping tests. Since LaRue began this practice, they have certainly been more on time in their shipments. Besides, both LaRue and Saia knew that many of the "hot" parts were actually for systems that were in the testing phase, rather than for ones that were being put into active use. So testing chips for long-term durability that went into these systems didn't matter. But still, LaRue had been caught by Quality Control skipping a test, and now he needed to make a decision. Upper management had simply told him to "handle it" and to keep the parts on time.

He couldn't let LaRue continue skipping tests, or at least he couldn't let this skipping go unsupervised. LaRue was a good employee, but he didn't have the science background to know which tests would do the least damage if they were skipped. He could work with LaRue and help him figure out the best tests to skip so the least harm was done. But getting directly involved in the skipping of tests would mean he was violating company policy and, likely federal law. His bosses seemed to have little patience for his explanations that the environmental testing took more time than the manufacturing. They did not believe that his hard work has made the line as efficient as it could be. They wanted results (which meant chips out the door) now. So, he had to keep the pressure on LaRue to get the chips out the door. But he did feel like he had one choice to make. He could keep the pressure up and simply turn a blind eye to LaRue's practice of test skipping. Or, he could use his expertise to match the test skipping with the particular chip and its application so the most timesavings were achieved and the least risk was incurred.