When we talk about seconds, we’re talking about Quality Control. When we started getting serious about establishing a real Quality Control department, we first had to get to the bottom of how we defined quality at East Fork. John and Connie came up with this:
East Fork sits at a unique and challenging intersection of small-scale artisan workshop and large scale industrial ceramic production. We are potters at our core. At the onset, we made pots from minimally refined materials and fired those pots in a large, wood-burning kiln. So much has changed since then, of course, but our rubric for a pot’s goodness has stayed steady at its core—our work should be beautiful and functional. It should be made for daily, life-long use.
In the early days, there were no set standards for quality, no SOP’s, and no QC position. The quality and price of a pot was based solely on the maker's own intuitive judgment. And that judgment was informed by the intergenerational striving of Potter and Apprentice, going deep into human history and drawing on lofty abstract notions of beauty. Bigger storage pots (10 gallons and up) were meant to have a “commanding and majestic presence, occupying space the way a lone oak in full leaf dominates a meadow, … the same sense of volume and internal resonances as the nave of a Romanesque cathedral." Pots were understood to have “skeletons” and “flesh” and the right balance thereof. Certain styles of mugs needed to have expectant bellies. A good platter would emanate the fullness of the moon.
Our current line of work is informed by that design sensibility, though it has evolved since then as our methods and context of our production have changed. The rims of our plates should exhibit a generous but taut curve and a graceful quality of touch left by the person who trimmed and finished the piece. The low-slung profile of our footed bowls should give the appearance of being at rest the way well-worn river rocks do. The handles of our mugs should move with the fluidity of good calligraphy. Our pots shouldn’t ever exhibit any “meanness” like scuffed bottoms, or rough debris around handle attachments, sharp rims or glaze flaws, but rather should resonate with the loving care of a freshly-swept floor.
Earlier this year we really started to reconcile these abstractions to the realities of making work at scale, building out a standards library, an agreed-upon nomenclature, and measurable metrics. The task of making our subjective feelings about pottery objective seemed fundamentally impossible at first, but we’re starting to figure it out.
The fundamental objective of our Quality Control team is to separate our firsts from our seconds. But what is a “second” and where do they come from?
A pot can be seconded for a number of reasons from a small fingerprint in the glaze to a huge iron blowout that looks like a dementor from Harry Potter (we have pics, if you want to see). We currently have nine categories that encompass “where” the second comes from as well as a number of named flaws within those categories that specify why the pot is seconded by our QC Team. For example—heavy streaking in the glaze is considered a second-quality flaw, which is categorized under “Glazing”. A pot becoming a second can happen at any point in its lifetime in our factory, starting as soon as the clay is processed to make the pot, through all the hands it touches, and even as it’s sanded after it comes out of the kiln. The most important thing to note is that seconds we put out into the world are still totally functional and are safe to bring into your home.
Let’s start with the “why” because that’s a simple one—our ultimate goal, our North Star is to create and sell pots that are functional, beautiful, safe to use, and reasonably meet the expectations of our customers.
This year, for the first time ever, East Fork has a Quality Control department. Up until now, Amanda and Daniel were taking precious time out of their packed production schedules to quickly QC pots coming out of the kiln. With higher production goals came way more pots to QC and get out the door.
Enter: DJ and Lisa, our Quality Control Team! Watching these two at the QC table is like all my second-grade dreams come true—if you’ve ever separated an entire bag of Skittles by color and meticulously eaten them one at a time, you might feel the same way. When a kiln is unloaded, DJ and Lisa separate all the pots by form and color and go through each stack one by one. They scan for visual flaws, run their hands over the entire surface area, feel the weight of each piece, and more and more. From there, the pot is determined to be a first, a second, or—in some cases—a third. Thirds never make it to customers, but many of us on the team here have amassed funny little personal collections of the wonkiest pots.
Determining our quality standards doesn’t fall to the QC team alone—it’s a big job! We have an interdepartmental Quality Control Committee, with people in the room who speak specifically to the voice of our customers, creative design intentions, production limitations and realities, and waterfall operational changes that might arise when quality standards and our means of tracking them shift. We get together to discuss a different flaw each week and determine standards for that flaw. A great example would be iron spots! Our clay has a high iron content, which is why we get those lovely iron speckles on all of our pottery. And while we love the variation that comes with it, there are times when it just gets out of hand and runs the risk of not meeting the expectations of our customers or taking away from the beauty of the pot. Here’s an example of parameters that we’ve put on iron spots:
On food surfaces: iron spot should be no larger than 8.4mm at its widest point
On non-food surfaces: iron spot should be no larger than 9.6mm at its widest point
There are so many reasons why a pot might be secondedsome that we see hundreds of a day and some maybe once a month.
It’s a little bit different every day, but our average this year has been about 30%. Our goal for 2020 is to get our seconds rate down to 25% across the board. What’s great is that we now have actual data and numbers for every kiln that is unloaded and QCed. So if I wanted to know what the kiln looked like on August 18th…
… I can see that we had a total of 621 pots that day and that 5 of them had rough debris spots! And I can even see what kind of problems each form is experiencing and how much money that’s costing us. 🤯
Here’s how our Side Plate has been doing since September:
Thanks for taking the time to read this far and please don’t hesitate to reach out to the Care Team with any other questions that may come up about seconds, the sale, or just about anything else!