by Charlie A. Webb
Staff Writer

Our forms of dress, especially uniforms have become a vital part of our culture in America, in fact, really, all over the world. Uniforms make us believable. It’s another layer of what we wish to project, and they concretize who we are professionally. Mark Twain said:

“A policeman in plain clothes is a man; in his uniform he is ten. Clothes and title are the most potent thing, the most formidable influence, in the earth. They move the human race to willing and spontaneous respect for the judge, the general, the admiral, the bishop, the ambassador, the frivolous earl, the idiot duke, the sultan, the king, the emperor. No great title is efficient without clothes to support it.”

We’re unlikely to take important medical counsel from a physician in a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, we expect a plumber to dress like a plumber and a cop to dress like a cop. Countless examples of the psychodynamics of dress association can be seen in all walks of life.

John T. Molloy, author of “Dress for Success,” exercised an interesting experiment on appearance when he panhandled money around the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Grand Central Station in New York City. He would approach people, terribly embarrassed, and say he left his wallet at home and needed 75 cents to get home. He did this for two hours during rush hour. During the first hour he wore a suit but no tie. During the second hour he wore the same suit, but added a tie. In the first hour, he made $7.23, but in the second hour, he made $26. His conclusion? “The tie is a symbol or respectability and responsibility; it communicates to other people who you are, or reinforces or detracts from their conception of who you should be.”

We humans are sorters; Friend or foe, safe or dangerous this is how we navigate. Simply put there is rank in much of what we see, from the plume of a peacocks tale to the lions mane, we gather visual clues quickly to better understand our surroundings. We categorize tiers of rank and authority from what we have learned through our own social observation. Another interesting university study conducted, revealed that even signage has a kind of uniform or tiered authenticity. The study found that if you hand write a sign and post it on a stake on newly planted grass that reads, “Keep off the grass,” compliance is marginal. If you print the sign in a bold font, there is a noticeable increase in compliance. If you now were to put, as they did in this study, the official University seal on the sign, then compliance was almost 100 percent. So we can see how this uniform or ranked authority mindset is systemic.

Uniforms do more than divide; in fact, they are most often used to create sameness. School uniforms for example are utilized to ameliorate any standout personality attributes of its wearer. The thinking, best I can tell, is that if students aren’t burdened with fitting in, they can then focus better on their studies. They have become effectively, fashion inert, setting the stage for academic focus. But this process has yet another use: diagnostics.

From a glance, even across a football field, we can see rank and status… a businessman, a homeless person, your team, their team, fireman or a UPS driver. There is a host of data we can extract in mere seconds.

At a recent visit to one of Southern California’s largest medical device manufacturers, I discovered how the “your camp vs. our camp” might well work against one company. In medical device manufacturing, we need to qualify our process and we must do so with qualified personnel. The thick codification of our process is an arduous, sometimes complicated process. Because of its complexities and required science, we hire degreed engineers, often with an educational focus in packaging or manufacturing engineering.

In the other camp is the maintenance group. Unlike the quality assurance group with their white lab coats, they were wearing blue jumpsuits. Typically the maintenance group comes from a mechanical background and many have never attended college. Or if they have, it was typically focusing on machinery training. It is not a surprising that there is division between these two groups. I was asked to come onsite to try to understand a sealing problem; there was an uneasy feeling of “Us versus Them” as I sat at a meeting trying to understand a failure in their process. The breakdown seems to be that quality, doesn’t feel that maintenance is doing an adequate job, and maintenance feels that quality assurance is too focused on the minor details. I was told that the machine was not operating at the correct temperature and the sealing temperature was low. What I discovered was the maintenance group had put the machine on a 100-foot extension cord with multiple connections along the hundred feet and further the extension cord was rated well below the machine’s electrical requirement. Using only a thin 14-gauge strand wire, the machine became power hungry resulting in unexpected machine behavior. Quality was blamed; maintenance was at fault. It doesn’t always work out this way. Sometimes it’s maintenance that was at fault and quality was blamed.

Departmental divisions can be the catalyst of a host of problems in manufacturing clearly we must work closer without the departmental firewalls that squelch productivity and breed manufacturing failures. When it comes to sterile packaging compliance, every camp must be integrated deep into the validation plan, the blue team vs. the white team model is organizational poison.

The new manufacturing culture is the cross-pollination of maintenance and quality, as there is a great amount of co-dependency. Not dysfunctional codependency; operational codependency. It is time we blend seamlessly, these groups for the collective aim of compliant packaging.

Any sterile device packaging validation process that is written without rich language covering organizational flow charts and organizational behavior attributes is simply incomplete. If this were my company I would make the recommendation to ditch the blue and the white uniforms and create one logoed uniform for all to wear proudly. This better represents the aggregate function of all of these interdependent departments. My hope for your organization is a congruent group of dedicated employees with a shared goal of quality. It may sound a little Pollyanna, but excellence should be the aim of any company, especially those of us involved in medical devices products that literally save lives.