Six Sigma and more: Michael J. Cleary

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn recalls his long professional and personal association with Mike Cleary, who died very suddenly last month.

On September 10, 2014, we lost a quality improvement pioneer and a deeply good man, Dr. Michael James Cleary. He introduced my wife, Carole, to me and in many ways was responsible for the unsurpassed happiness both of us and our Brady Bunch family have felt for the last 32 years. Let me tell you my story about Mike Cleary.

In 1981, I first met Mike when he was teaching at Wright State University and I was at the Corporate Quality Office at Ford Motor Company. We came together at the invitation of Bob Amsden, a professor at the University of Dayton, in order to study and document the topic of quality circles, in those days a relatively new phenomena to the U.S. I noticed in Mike a quiet wisdom, an inquiring mind, a not-to-be-dismissed intent, and a solid presence (think Gregory Peck in the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird). We both shared a deep belief that quality was the way to make American industry more competitive at a time when real global competition was becoming apparent. We were drawn together.

About that time, we, at Ford, had just contracted with Dr. W. Edwards Deming to help us out of our quality crisis. I invited Mike up to Dearborn to meet him. I did not know that Mike had also received a call from Carole Hannan, Director of the Personnel Development Institute at Jackson (Michigan) Community College (JCC). Carole was responsible to provide training and consulting to business and industry in her community and when she asked them what they needed, her community, primarily automotive suppliers, told her they needed to learn how to improve their quality. She called Mike just as he and his son, Sean, were forming PQ Associates, the predecessor of PQ Systems. Mike told Carole he would help and also told her about Dr. Deming and about me. That started the partnership and friendship that lasted these many years.

In the fall of 1982, Carole pulled together an all-day conference called Quality: Mandate for the 80’s featuring Mike, several other representatives of the Detroit auto industry, and me. At the conclusion of the conference, Clyde LeTarte, the president of JCC, offered to provide training to any interested auto suppliers. When an overwhelming response occurred, he asked Mike and me to provide the training. Mike, Carole, and I set about creating a series of workshops where we would, over time, teach and coach management teams from some 20 area auto suppliers. Given that we had never done such a thing before and knew of no one else who had done it either, we did some scrambling. I found Mike to be an amazing collaborator, a fine consultant and coach, and a model for the teaching of statistics! All went well, including clear quality improvements for those suppliers before we were done.

Others must have heard of our success, because Carole started receiving calls from other community colleges who wanted to replicate what we were doing with their own local industry. Because we knew no better, the three of us set about to create the Transformation of American Industry national community colleges training project (TAI) in 1984. Because much of the training was based on the ideas of Dr. Deming, we knew the training delivered by the other community colleges must be consistent with Dr. Deming’s teachings. We concluded that we must videotape our training. We, of course, had no money with which to fund the training, so off went Mike and Carole to find a sponsor. When that didn’t work, Clyde suggested that we find several sponsors for smaller contributions. In those days, I must say the characteristic Mike shared with both Carole and me was one of wide-eyed optimism! It worked and the TAI was launched.

As the three of us, along with Carole’s colleague, Susan Leddick, traveled around the country providing TAI training to community colleges, we were also providing similar training directly to other manufacturing firms. Within a couple of years, we were working beyond auto manufacturing into all kinds of industry, business, government, education, health care, nonprofits, and communities. We learned that we needed something beyond the TAI to help all these other clients. We came up with the Total Quality Transformation training system. By that time, PQ Systems was well up and running, so not only did Mike provide his direct support for the development of TQT, but generously provided the support of much of the company.

I remember a couple of things about PQ that speak to Mike’s approach to management and life. In the first major suite that PQ occupied, Mike refused to have an office. He had a cubicle just like everyone else, in order to be more accessible to everyone. That may not seem like much now, but it was unheard of in those days. In trying to live by Dr. Deming’s 14 points, he also, with much employee participation and difficulty, managed to substitute typical individual bonuses paid to his salespeople with open books and a profit sharing plan for all. That is still more than a little unusual. Another thing I learned about Mike as we discussed PQ’s journey over the years was the delicacy with which he balanced his desire to be at the forefront of his industry while weighing every risk against the best interests of the people who worked for him. Did you get that? He worried not about himself or PQ. He worried about providing good steady employment for the people who worked for him. That is one of the reasons PQ Systems was rated one of the 25 best companies to work for in the Dayton area in 2014.

At Mike’s funeral, his son, Matt, spoke of Mike’s ever present desire to listen…and after listening, his willingness to give advice. I would say wise counsel.

Mike was a leader in the best sense of the word. He listened deeply. He gave wise counsel carefully. He balanced risk against the good of his employees. He strove for complete transparency. In the final analysis, he cared. He did this because he loved everyone he came into contact with, so far as I can tell.

That’s my story about Mike Cleary. I wish you to be a leader like Mike. I wish your organization and every institution and community to have leaders like Mike. The world would be a better place.

As always, I treasure your comments and questions, but this month, please take some time to reflect on your relationship with Mike. I’d truly love to hear your stories and see your memories. You can reach me by commenting below.

2 thoughts on “Six Sigma and more: Michael J. Cleary

  1. Dave,

    Just a fantastic job.and it was great to see you and Carole.
    Thanks for sharing,

  2. I met Dr. Cleary back in the late seventies, when we both shared the speaker podium at the ASQC conferences. I was employed by Lockheed Martin (then Martin Marietta) at the Michoud Assembly facility in New Orleans. I put together the Quality Circle program at that facility and was giving presentations on it. Dr. Cleary was speaking on SPC.

    At the end of one session, we were riding together in the shuttle bus and he told me about the start of PQ Systems. As I recall, he mentioned that his son was very good at programming their PC and developed an interest in the SPC that he (Dr. Cleary) was doing. His son then developed the first SPC applications, which they sold at ASQ meetings. One day a black limo kept circling the block of their house, and finally stopped. His son was shooting baskets in the driveway when two men in suits stepped out of that limo and asked him if he knew where PQ Associates was located. His son replied, “Welcome to the world headquarters.” It turns out that the men were from GM, looking to purchase the SPC training material – which they did.

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