Too many shades of gray

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by Richard A. Matthews

Webster's dictionary defines ethics as “standards of conduct adopted by professionals… study of right and wrong in actions.” I see a deterioration of ethics in the cleanroom industry. There are too many shades of gray in the cleanroom business. I started in this business when cleanrooms were called “white rooms.”

A less clean “white room” was called a “gray room,” and unfortunately, there was no clear definition of what “gray” was.

So the term cleanroom was adopted with specific definition. There were three cleanrooms (Class 100, Class 10,000, and Class 100,000) per the original US Federal Standard 209. With the new ISO Standards, there are now nine major classes of air cleanliness, plus an additional 72 sub-classes for a total of 81 classes of air cleanliness. This is certainly enough to define the very particular shade of gray you need. The air cleanliness class nomenclature system has saved the cleanroom community from having to create sample paint chips like the kind you can pick up at your local paint store.

But these are not the shades of gray I am most concerned about. Specifically, I am disturbed by the ethical “shades of gray” currently found in the cleanroom business environment.

There will always be a need for “buyer beware.” Quality levels vary, construction methods vary, attention to detail varies, business philosophies differ, and some people are downright dishonest while others are just ignorant. Buyers must carefully assess with whom they are doing business.

The same is true for vendors. They need to be conscious of whom their customers are. All business is conducted based upon the good faith concept. The Uniform

Commercial Code, which covers all business activity in the USA and in many other countries, is a law whose foundation is this good faith concept.

But to assume all business is conducted in good faith is naive. Let me cite a few examples from my own experience.

A potential customer called and asked for help in solving a contamination control problem. We visited his facility and offered a series of options for fixing his problem. Actually, there were six options with different cost levels.

There were further discussions and value engineering, and the potential customer agreed that one particular option met all of his technical and financial criteria. We were advised that we would receive a purchase order shortly.

However, we found out that this client put our proposal on his letterhead, put his title block on our drawings, and sent our design out for competitive bidding to some other vendors. One of these other vendors, who had no investment of time or cost in solving the client's problem through site visits, design and engineering talent received the client's order for this project at a lower cost than we proposed.

I give you this example not for the purpose of crying sour grapes. I ask for your professional opinion: who owned what and, in turn what are the professional responsibilities of each party?

As I view it, a customer has four clear options for solving a contamination control problem:

  • Take care of the problem in-house with internal people and talent.
  • Hire an A & E firm or consultant to prepare a plan and specification and put this out for competitive bid.
  • Invite two or three design/build contractors to offer competitive solutions but use care not to divulge competitive information.
  • Hire a design/build contractor to solve the problem.

Shades of gray ethics intrude when a client gets greedy. He either plays one vendor against another vendor from option (3) by revealing competitor's information, or he reverts to fraud by taking a vendor's information and re-labeling it as his own, then seeking lower costing as cited in the example above.

In our company we use a statement that essentially says, “The information contained in the proposal is the property of Filtration Technology Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted to other parties without the consent of Filtration Technology Inc.” This statement is designed as a starting point for further business activity with a client.

I have personally been involved in over 500 turnkey cleanroom projects as well as being a component supplier for many others. I recognize that in a competitive business world everyone wants the best value for his or her money. But there seems to be a creeping philosophy of “I deserve something for nothing.” “I really do not have time to solve my own problems. You do it for me so I can go out and buy it cheaper.”

This brings us to the issue of when does the solution to a contamination control problem belong to the cleanroom end-user? In my second example we solved a significant contamination control quality/yield problem for a client. He purchased a number of units from us and we continued to modify and improve our design, thereby increasing his yield and profit. Then, he decided to bring in a competitor of ours to see if there was a cheaper, better way to build our units. To make things easy for this competitor, he gave him a set of our drawings, the same “as built” drawings that we had provided to the customer as part of our obligation to him.

Now, to whom do these drawings belong? Should they be given to our direct competitor? What obligation, if any, does this customer have to us for solving his problem and improving his yield?

Customers with problems should recognize from the beginning that when they ask for help they have an ethical obligation to that vendor if they use his ideas. Should it be necessary for vendors to ask customers to sign secrecy agreements before solving problems? The reverse is almost always true.

You always hear the adage “Let the buyer beware.” I say, “Let the vendor beware.” I recognize that we are all busy. But we should never be too busy to compromise our ethics.

One of the key strengths of our democratic society is good business ethics. Do we really want to contribute to the internal deterioration of this society through poor business ethics?

Richard A. Matthews is founder of Filtration Technology Inc. (Greensboro, NC) and president of Micron Video International. He is chairman of the International Organization for Standardization Technical Committee ISO/TC209 “Cleanrooms and associated clean environments,” and past president of the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology. He is on the CleanRooms Editorial Advisory Board.


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