It’s All About Test Points

by Michael Schwartz

Recently, I had a conversation with a lab manager about their lab and how they measure productivity. This really got me to thinking about how we measure productivity in this industry. As in any industry, there are several factors that contribute to overall efficiencies of a calibration lab. But metrology is unique, in that all too often, our inefficiencies decrease our uncertainties—that is a good thing in a world where the lab with the lowest uncertainties is the winner.

But there has to be a tipping point. As we all know from the GUM (Guide to the Expression of Uncertainty in Measurements), it’s not feasible to take an infinite number of measurements, so we make a determination related to the time it takes to test the units compared to the uncertainties required. But how do we find that same tipping point when we have to balance out how to measure productivity?

The problem is further complicated when it comes to measuring the productivity and value of our technicians. As in many labs when it’s time for the annual review of your technicians, how can you gage their productivity in an unbiased format? Most labs/accounting systems are based on a piece count metric. But this values a physical dimensional technician with a much higher piece count than a comparable RF & Microwave technician.

Now let’s add in some automation, where the electrical lab’s productivity can be increased as much at 400%. In this environment, a lower skilled technician can simply connect the DUT (Device Under Test) per the instructions and walk away. He can also efficiently run multiple stations at the same time, so depending on the DUTs being tested, the lowest skilled technician in the lab could have the highest piece count.

I remember my team chief, back when I was still in the Army, wanting to do the same thing. I remember having to spend a day or two every couple of weeks calibrating high volume instruments like torque wrenches and micrometers just to get my piece count up. It seemed like a waste of time because we were always behind on the complicated calibrations. So much so, that many times the assistant team chief would set up the cal station, line up all the equipment, then do all the paper work. This minimized the time lost on the longer more complex time consuming calibrations, while at the same time, keep the piece rate up for the technician assigned to that area.

In the Army, we were masters at the paperwork shuffle, but in business we run on metrics. Maximizing efficiencies is a must. Having your best technician spend a day calibrating torque wrenches, just to get his piece count up, would be considered a waste of time. Not that an RF & Microwave technician is above the work; that’s not my reasoning here. Unlike in the Army, commercial calibration technicians are paid based on their skill set, not based on their time in service or rank.

How do we balance the scales? (No pun intended!) We need a way to gauge technical skills and productivity. We need a better metric! Something that can highlight a technician’s skill level matched to their work performance and how they are doing it (automated or manually). Managers, especially upper managers and Human Resource managers, need a better metric when corporate bureaucracy and pay structures make it impossible to justify getting a valuable technician the raise they deserve.

I think the better metric lies in measurement of test points. They are the great equalizer! At the very least, they can provide us with more details in the metric for gauging a technician’s work performance, where simple items tend to have less test points while more complex items tend to have more. By simply counting test points, we can see which technicians perform more tests over the same period of time.

Additionally, each of the test points can be tagged with a complexity metric: values that are designed to show the difficulty of collecting the data for the test point. We can also tag each of the test points with automated vs. manual calibration. We can then weigh human work vs. automation doing the work for the technician. These metrics can be rolled up into an overall report on work performed and the technician performing the work.

To my knowledge, neither this type of metric nor its level of detail has ever been build. Right now, it is only a vision of the future measurement information infrastructure systems, geared towards making metrology more usable.