Bonnie Small (1909-2000) was a distinguished female quality professional who spent 30 years working for US electronics giant Western Electric. A keen disciple of Walter Shewhart, she played a key role during the 1940s and 1950s in popularising and regulating the use of control charts in Western Electric and in the US as a whole.
A peripatetic childhood
Bonnie Blanche Small was born on 30 November 1909 in San Francisco, California USA to Ray and Ruby M Small. Father Ray was employed as an engineer with the US Department of Agriculture and Bonnie's parents were en route to an assignment in the Philippines when she was born. Bonnie's early life was fairly peripatetic as the Small's growing family moved between Ray's assignments. Shortly after her father returned from two years war-time military service with the US Army Tank Corps, the family at last settled down in Madison, Wisconsin. This allowed Bonnie to join the progressive Madison Central High School where she flourished. The school's award-winning student newspaper the Madison Mirror, regularly referred to Bonnie's plays, poetry and addresses. Her success continued when in 1926 she moved a few blocks away from her school to the University of Wisconsin. Bonnie wanted to take a Physics degree. But because the University didn't want Bonnie to be the only female in an all-male class she was forced to take a Humanities degree with an emphasis on Physics. She won a Scholarship cup as the best freshman girl and was top of her class in her sophomore year. She was a leading light of the University's drama society and helped edit two of the University's newspapers. She graduated 'Phi Beta Kappa' in 1930 with a thesis on Petarch and the Classics.
Teaching and photography
Bonnie Small then took a teaching job at the High School in Oconomowoc, a small country town 50 miles away from Madison. She taught Latin, Greek and German and under her direction, Oconomowoc High School's drama productions dominated the annual Wisconsin State Theatre Festival during the early thirties. Eventually she decided to move to Chicago to improve her prospects, helping her cousin Nellie Roberts in her photography business there. Bonnie would take trips to Chicago's Central Library (now the Chicago Cultural Centre) to keep up to date with the latest scientific developments. On one of these trips she read a Walter Shewhart book and then started using control charts in the photographic lab.
Western Electric - Hawthorne Works
In 1942 with the Selective Service System ('the Draft') creating vacancies in US industry, Bonnie Small decided to pay a visit to Western Electric's giant Hawthorne works in Cicero, in the western suburbs of Chicago. With her knowledge of Walter Shewhart (now long departed from the Hawthorne works), control charts and her persuasive style, Bonnie soon got past the security guard and personnel department and found herself talking to one of the engineering supervisors. Impressed with her knowledge she was hired on the spot to carry out quality studies. Thus began a very successful thirty year career with Western Electric. In her own words, she, "fell in love with the data" and would often visit the engineering shop floor after the staff had left so that she could take measurements without causing antagonism. Small said she was delighted to dig into control charts, "They worked just like magic to tell you what was going on".
Western Electric - Murray Hill and Allentown
However her experiences at Hawthorne convinced her that Walter Shewhart's ideas needed refinement if they were to be useful in a factory environment and she later paid a visit to Bell Labs in New Jersey to discuss her ideas with him. At around the same time, three of Shewhart's colleagues at Murray Hill, were perfecting the transistor. Shortly afterwards, Western Electric opened a new plant in Allentown, Pennsylvania to manufacture this ground-breaking component and Bonnie Small was asked to transfer there to supervise quality systems. She ran training courses and introduced systems, and in 1955 she was asked by Western Electric to assemble a committee of colleagues to standardise the company's approach to quality monitoring. A year later in 1956 this committee published the first edition of a Statistical Quality Control Handbook for Western Electric. This handbook distilled the company's own extensive experience founded on the pioneering ideas of Shewhart, Deming, Juran and others into a practical quality manual. Much of the material for the book was based on Western Electric training courses given to managers, engineers, and shop floor staff at Hawthorne and Allentown. In her preface to the handbook, Bonnie Small stated, "The book is written in non-technical language, and no attempt has been made to write for the professional statistician or the mathematician. The techniques described are essentially those which have been used in all types of industry since their development during the 1920's by Dr Shewhart. Perhaps the most distinctive features of the Western Electric program are
- the emphasis on Engineering and Operating applications rather than Inspection, and
- emphasis on the control chart, and particularly the process capability study, as the foundation of the entire program."
Western Electric Rules
Already an accomplished writer and communicator, Bonnie played a large part in establishing decision rules (the 'Western Electric Rules') for detecting "out-of-control" or non-random conditions on control charts. This helped ensure that line workers and engineers interpreted control charts in a uniform way. In 1961 she was appointed research leader of mathematical management techniques for Western Electric's Engineering Research Centre at Hopewell, New Jersey. By this time it was estimated the company maintained around 5,000 control charts, and performance and quality at their Allentown transistor plant had improved dramatically. Bonnie Small published several articles and papers on statistical and quality control and was a Fellow of the American Society for Quality Control.
She retired from Western Electric in 1973, but kept in touch with her old colleagues. AT&T commemorated her contributions by instituting the Bonnie Small Awards for quality excellence. In 1994 in a conference call with quality staff at AT&T's Oklahoma works Bonnie Small was asked about applying Statistical Quality Control to office work, she replied, "Really intelligent people often believe that they don't have measureable data. There always is data. Of course, you have data. Let's not be ridiculous". After Bonnie Small died on the 29th October in 2000, the Allentown branch of the American Society of Quality instituted the Bonnie Small Scholarship for aspiring young quality professionals.