Jeff the Barcode Quality Guy: The Awakening
When I first met Jeff, he was a skeptic. It was ingrained in his persona and expressed in his lifestyle. Jeff was a maverick, a card-carrying non-card-carrier. He operated a narrow web press for a small but growing printer. Barcodes were just another image on the label. His mentor, an old “seasoned” printer, conferred his ideas about quality on to Jeff: if it looked good, it was good.
Jeff took this attitude with him to the card printing company, where the work ethic was “look busy and make the boss happy.” Quality was in its infancy and the card company did it mostly to serve marketing. Jeff sat at the highly visible QA desk in the middle of the production floor and scanned barcodes all day with an early laser verifier. Results were inconsistent but Jeff was not working for results. He was working for a paycheck.
The changes that have come since then are breathtaking. The barcode is a microcosm, evolving from the brainchild of a few grocery industry tycoons. Barcodes make possible a global system of automatic identification that supports manufacturing of most durable goods, the upstream supply chains that feed manufacturing and the downstream supply chains that feed distribution, the inventory systems that manage virtually every point-of-sale transaction, and hundreds of thousands of other less visible but no less important functions.
Breathtaking change has also come to the workplace, and not just to the workplace culture. Well actually, the early workplace had no real culture. The work environments in Jeff’s early jobs were highly political in a dictionary sense—dogmatic, stratified, hostile to individual initiative: make the boss happy but don’t lose the respect of peers. A delicate, impossible dance. Mind numbing, routinized “look busy and avoid responsibility” thrived in that atmosphere. Anathema to a healthy company, to humanity, to real progress.
Automation has played an important role in changing that, replacing chores with teamwork driven by goal sharing, collaboration and metrics so we can verify that we are going in the right direction, and measure how well we are getting there. The barcode has played a major, though seldom acknowledged, role in that evolution.
The barcode is what brought Jeff from the self-avowed skeptic to a true-believing team member, and that was no small distance. Like most journeys, it was not one giant leap. There were some falls, some bruises and a more than few embarrassments.
When I met Jeff, AIM X3 was just published. It had not yet become ISO 15416, the global standard for barcode print quality. Jeff was not impressed. Time passed. The standard revealed itself as more than just a bludgeon for badly printed barcodes: it also exposed non-complying scanners. The tilted world began to right itself in Jeff’s head. He became a crusader, proving that there is no zealot like a convert—but time also worked its
magic on that; Jeff was now himself becoming that old “seasoned” printer. Jeff’s emerging legacy is not his smartness: the black and white of right and wrong and who to blame. It is bigger than smart, well beyond rules–it is wise.
Over the years, Jeff has learned that munching around the edges and denigrating sincere, imperfect attempts to make things better is ultimately unhelpful. Ultimately everybody wants to make things better. The barcode, a simple, little, unsung tool has quietly done pivotal work toward making things better. In its small way, it has saved us from solitary, mindless labor, freeing us to find our tribe, disagree with respect, pull and push together for something better.