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Book Review: “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”

ConfessionOfABuddhistAtheistEvery religion I’ve been exposed to is steeped in rituals and traditions that reach deep into history. I have no doubt that the various beliefs came to be with purpose. They solved a particular problem of the time. They were useful and brought tangible benefits. We carry them on now because we believe they worked in the past and that they will continue to work now and into the future.

What we fail to recognize is that the world is not static. The context for a given ritual or tradition has changed. Reality is like a slow boiling cauldron. Looking in, you think you have identified the surface of the liquid. It looks about the same from moment to moment but it is perpetually bubbling, always shifting. You need to be aware of its shifts and match them to stay on top. The Buddha had this insight 2500+ years ago: all things are conditionally arisen. Our actions need to meet the present reality.

The irony is that while the Buddha’s teachings questioned the validity of rituals and traditions of other religions of his time, Buddhism itself has became steeped in rituals and traditions over the ages. In “Confession of a Buddhist AtheistStephen Batchelor shares his experience of them with Tibetan and Zen Buddhism; his disillusionment with both, and his personal journey to find the historical man that came to be called the Buddha. Along the way he identifies what he believes were the Buddha’s core teachings.

I found the book very readable. I was sympathetic to Batchelor’s story and I gained from his insights.

Quality Is The Problem

Last month I asked “How are you, as a Quality professional, perceived?” in several LinkedIn discussion groups. I hoped to understand what we thought others thought of us. I wanted a qualitative measure of our awareness.

I parsed 108 comments from 55 people. Of them, 30 felt they were perceived poorly, 17 were ambivalent, and 8 felt that others viewed them favorably. The comments fell into one of the following categories:

(+) Consultant/Improvers
(-) Fear/Loathe
(-) Cops/Surveillance
(-) Barriers/Bottlenecks
(-) Necessary Evil/Imposed Cost
(-) Hard to Understand

It appears we, Quality professionals, are very aware. We are sensitive to what others think of us. That is the good news. The bad news, however, and it is really bad news, is that we seem to think others consider us a serious drag on business.

I wondered if such harsh self-criticism was just an issue of poor self-esteem, but I don’t think it is. Based on my observations and experience, I find it to be a fair assessment of how others view us. Even we hold such views of other fellow Quality professionals.

But hold on second. That is not what our profession is about. We are not supposed to be drags on business. We are supposed to be the people that help the makers make things better, faster, stronger.

So where are we going wrong?

If the definition of quality has to do with meeting or exceeding the expectations of the consumer, first we need to understand who is the consumer of the services that Quality professionals offer. Isn’t it our employer? The end user isn’t paying for what we do. Next we need to understand what are the consumer’s expectations. How many of us really understand our employer’s wants? (Try not to substitute in what you think the employer should want with what the employer actually wants. Also, let’s get real, most companies’ Quality Policy is just a set of platitudes.) Finally, we need to evaluate our efforts in the context of what our employer wants.

In this light, do the results our actions as Quality professionals conform to the requirements of our employer? If not, aren’t we imposing a loss on our employer, to use Taguchi’s term? And, from the looks of the categories above, it is not an insignificant loss. Contrary to our purpose, we are generating suffering through our actions!

It is not the role of the Quality professional to set the objectives for the company. It is our role in the service of our employer to provide options on how best to meet those objectives. It is not the role of the Quality professional to choose the ‘best’ option. It is our role to help execute our employer’s choice in the most effective way. I think it would serve us well to get off of our high horses and stop thinking of ourselves as saviors. The sooner we start cooperating with others – being of service to them instead of demanding actions from them – the better we will all be.


How We Look For A New Law

In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we…Now don’t laugh. That’s really true.

Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what…if this is right…if this law that we guessed is right we see what it would imply.

And then we compare those computation results to Nature. Or we say compare to experiment or experience; compared directly with observation to see if it works.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to Science. It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is; it doesn’t make a difference how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

– Richard Feynman


rippleDrop a pebble into a pond. Its effects ripple out. But the ripples don’t radiate infinitely across the surface. Nor do they last forever. At sufficient distance from their center they are hardly distinguishable from the surrounding water. A point beyond the reach of the ripples wouldn’t know that a pebble was ever dropped into the pond.

Drop two pebbles into a pond. Each generates ripples that radiate out. If the pebbles were dropped far from each other, their ripples die out before reaching one another. Each unaware the other happened just as before. But if the pebbles were dropped close to each other, their ripples interfere with one another. Some reach through to the centers themselves. Thus making their presence known. “Here I am! I exist!”

We are sources of ripples in this expanse of existence. I cause ripples at every point and instant I am. So do you. But until our ripples interact with one another we cannot know of each other. In ancestral times we were separated far enough from one another for our ripples to ever interact. We were independent. Alone. That space has shrunk to almost nothing in our time. Our ripples constantly collide with one another. Sometimes constructively, sometimes destructively. We are painfully aware of each other without announcement.

We absorb some of the energy from the ripples that bombard us. Not enough to damp them completely. They reflect off of us. We react to counteract their impact on us. And so no ripple ever settles out. Each seems to get an invisible kick and be periodically rejuvenated. By what and from when seems shrouded in mystery. The water’s surface is forever unsettled. This is the chaos that is life. No peace. No quiet.

As we grow in number, as the space between us continues to shrink, the closer we get to one another, the more we are bombarded with original ripples and ripples from interacting ripples. They come at us from all directions. They come at us faster. There is no way to predict and prepare for the next collision with the here and now. There isn’t time to process what it means. There is no thing to thank or to blame. We only experience it. Rich. Momentary. Unique.

Dealing with Nonconforming Product

A particular process makes parts of diameter D. There are 10 parts produced per batch. The batches are sampled periodically and the diameter of all the parts from the sampled batch is measured. Data, representing deviation from the target, for the first 6 sampled batches is shown in Table 1. The graph of the data is shown in Figure 1. Positive numbers indicate the measured diameter was larger than the target while negative numbers indicate the measured diameter was smaller than the target. The upper and lower specification limits for acceptable deviation are given as +/- 3.


Table 1. Data for six batches of 10 parts each. The numbers represent the deviation from the target.


Figure 1. Graph of the data from the table above. The most recent batch, batch number six, shows one part was nonconforming.

The most recent batch, sample batch number six, shows one of the 10 parts having a diameter smaller than the lower specification limit. As such, it is a nonconforming part.

The discovery of a nonconforming product triggers two parallel activities: i) figuring out what to do with the nonconforming product, and ii) addressing the cause of the nonconforming product to inhibit the nonconformance from occurring again.


Nonconforming product may be repaired or reworked when possible, but it can always be scrapped. Each one of these three options has its own set of complications and cost.

Repairing a nonconforming product involves additional steps beyond what are usually needed to make the product. This additional processing has the potential to create previously unknown weaknesses in the product e.g. stress concentrations. So repaired product will need to be subjected to testing that verifies it still satisfies its intended use. For this particular case, repairing is not possible. The diameter is smaller than the target. Repair would have been possible if the diameter had been larger than the target.

Reworking a nonconforming product involves undoing the results of the previous process steps, then sending the product through the standard process steps a second time. Undoing the results of the previous process steps involves additional process steps just as were required to repair a nonconforming product. This additional processing has the potential to create previously unknown weaknesses in the product. Reworked product will need to be subjected to testing that verifies it still satisfies its intended use. For this particular case, reworking is not possible.

Scrapping a nonconforming product means to destroy it so that it cannot be accidentally used. For this particular case, scrapping the nonconforming part is the only option available.


In order to determine the cause of the nonconformity we have to first determine the state of the process i.e. whether the process is stable or not. The type of action we take depends on it.

A control chart provides a straightforward way to answer this question. Figure 2. shows an Xbar-R chart for this process. Neither the Xbar chart (top), nor the R chart (bottom) show uncontrolled variation. There is no indication of a special cause affecting the process. This is a stable process in the threshold state. While it is operating on target i.e. its mean is approximately the same as the target, its within-batch variation is more than we would like. Therefore, there is no point trying to hunt down a specific cause for the nonconforming part identified above. It is most likely the product of chance variation that affects this process; a result of the process’s present design.


Figure 2. Xbar-R chart built using the first six sampled batches. Neither the Xbar chart nor the R chart show uncontrolled variation. There is no indication of a special cause affecting the process.

In fact, the process was left alone to collect more data (Figure 3.). The Xbar-R charts do not show any unusual variation that would indicate external disturbances affecting the process. Its behavior is predictable.


Figure 3. More data was collected and the control limits were recalculated using the first 15 sampled batches. The process continues to look stable with no signs of external disturbance.

But, even though the process is stable, it does produce nonconforming parts from time to time. Figure 4. shows that a nonconforming part was produced in sampled batch number 22 and one in sampled batch number 23. Still, it would be wasted effort to hunt down specific causes for the creation of these nonconforming parts. They are the result of chance variation that is a property of the present process design.


Figure 4. Even though the process is stable it still occasionally produces nonconforming parts. Sampled batch number 22 shows a nonconforming part with a larger than tolerable diameter while sampled batch number 23 shows one with a smaller than tolerable diameter.

Because this process is stable, we can estimate the mean and standard deviation of the distribution of individual parts. They were calculated to be -0.0114 and 0.9281. Assuming that the individual parts are normally distributed, we can estimate that this process will produce about 0.12% nonconforming product if left to run as is. Some of these parts will be smaller than the lower specification limit for the diameter. Others will be larger than the upper specification limit for the diameter. That is, about 12 nonconforming pieces will be created per 10,000 parts produced. Is this acceptable?

If the calculated nonconforming rate is not acceptable, then this process must be modified in some fundamental way. This would involves some sort of structured experimentation using methods from design of experiments to reduce variation. New settings for factors like RPM or blade type among others will need to be determined.

A Reflection on Culture

varanasiThrough the books I’ve recently read I’ve come to see culture as an output, a result or an emergent property of a system. Furthermore, just like all outputs, it cannot be managed directly, as Matthew E. May points out in his post “To Change A Culture, Change The System.” The only way to manage outputs is to change the inputs to the system and/or change the system.

I’ve come to believe that we’re wired to focus on outputs and sort good from bad. And, why not? For most of our evolution we’ve never had any control of our environment. We’ve been a part of the system. In that context it’s perfectly natural for us to comment on culture and sort it into good or bad. However, just as you can’t inspect quality into a product as Harold S. Dodge pointed out, you can’t improve culture by calling out its positive or negative attributes.

In the case of the modern organization, perhaps you can select the type of people to minimize cultural diversity. (Cultural diversity here refers to mindset, drive, focus, etc.) But in my experience, with the way that process (i.e. interviews) works right now, it amounts to shots in the dark. Better to setup a system that is robust to the variation in its human resource to yield a cohesive culture.

System design requires designers (leaders) who have a vision for the system. They must understand the context for their system and then design their system to produce the desired result. These are all skills that can be learned, but so few bother. It’s hard work. There’s no instant pudding. But who’s got the time?

Perceptions Dictate Actions

Abraham Maslow proposed a theory on human motivation outlining an hierarchy of needs we all move through. Whether the hierarchical structure strictly applies may be questionable, but his categories of needs can be accepted as defined with an appeal to personal experience.

At various points in our lives we have felt a need for food, water and shelter, safety and security, stability, friendship, love, respect, and growth. Maslow grouped these needs into five categories: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. While he organized these categories in an hierarchy, I find it more meaningful to think of them as factors that combine and interact to give rise to various mental states.

Personal experience has led me to believe mental states affect perception. A given situation will be perceived differently under different mental states. And, how you perceive affects how you react. If your mental state is dominated by a sense of insecurity, you will perceive your situation as threatening and react accordingly. Futhermore, no other category of need will feel worthwhile until the one dominating your mental state has been attended to.

It has also been my experience that people with dissimilar mental states have difficulty relating to one another in a productive fashion. Because mental states affect perception, dissimilar states result in different perspectives of the same issue. Differing perspectives are not conducive to forming the common understanding necessary to cooperatively face a situation. People talk past one another. Messages are misunderstood. Communication doesn’t take place.

Given that it’s unlikely two people will share similar mental states at any given time, how does one move across this emotional minefield? Meditation and self-reflection have helped me to characterize my mental state. This awareness has opened up a choice for me unavailable before: how do I want react to things? At the very least I have an option to not make things worse. I can also attempt to ascertain the other person’s mental state and work towards common understanding.


Most of us have been taught to live our lives singularly focused on outcomes. We are a result oriented society. We worship winners and revile losers. With that as the context, is it any wonder that the majority of us are risk averse? Why do something if there is a chance we might not achieve our desired end? Who would want to be labeled a failure or a loser?

I remember an incident back in middle school. I had got a ‘D’ in one of my classes. It generated such anxiety that I doctored my report card. With a couple of well placed dots penciled in on the dot matrix printout I changed the grade from the ‘D’ to a ‘B’. I knew it was wrong, but the fear of failure was dominating. Even though my parents had never set any expectations for grades – they had always wanted me to just do my best – I had nevertheless internalized the stigma of failure from other social contexts.

The message we all, student or professional, get every waking moment is clear even if it is just implied: hit the target. It does not matter how. Anything less is not only worthless but it will bring negative consequences. What we fail to grasp is the fact that just as you cannot inspect quality into a product, you cannot test knowledge into a student. Trying to do it just fosters our present culture wherein we are all afraid to take chances and risk failure.

We must shift our focus upstream to the learning process. We must be taught how to learn beyond just what to learn. All of us have to understand how knowledge is built and then use that process to grow our own knowledge. That process, the learning cycle, is elegantly expressed by Dr. Shewhart and Dr. Deming: PDSA or Plan-Do-Study-Act. Its deceptive simplicity hides the profound impact it has had in growing human knowledge.

Make a guess at the solution to the problem you’re facing and plan a way to test your guess. Following the plan, actually do the test; carry it out. Study the result by comparing it against your guess. Do they match each other? How you act, depends on the answer. If the result matches your guess, you have confirmation of your guess. If not, you will need to modify your guess with the new found data and run through the cycle once more. Either way, you have increased your knowledge. There is no failure!

How many cycles it takes to understand the nature of the problem we face depends on how good our initial guess is. We must afford everyone the opportunity to run through as many cycles as they need without judging them as a success or a failure based on the outcome of any given iteration of the cycle. Doing so is a way to kill intrinsic curiosity and stop the learning process cold. If we want people to take risks, then we have to foster an environment of experimentation and cooperation.

Life is a journey, not a destination. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Entropy and Assignable Causes

Left alone, a process in the Ideal State will migrate toward the State of Chaos over time. Wear and tear of parts in use will lead to breakdowns and failures. Even mothballed machines cannot escape deterioration and decay caused by the environment. Entropy affects everything.

However, the effects of entropy can be repaired. Signatures of deterioration and failure made apparent by process control charts provide clues as to what repairs need to be made when. But, a process isn’t affected just by entropy. Other assignable causes keep it from operating in a predictable fashion. Replacing worn out parts might pull a process out from the State of Chaos back to the Brink of Chaos, but it’s just a matter of time before it returns to it.

Process managers, through the proper use of process control charts, must counteract the effects of entropy and assignable causes to help their processes achieve the ideal state and stay there. This is a never ending cycle.

Note: I learned this material from reading Dr. Wheeler’s writings. My post is intended to reflect my current understanding. None of the ideas herein are original to me. Any errors are my failures alone.



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