Early on in my career my thoughts about the world and work were fragmentary. They often conflicted with one another. These conflicting disorganized thoughts were the source of a lot of confusion and frustration.
Then I read W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis. On page 4, Fig. 1 shows a diagram of “Production viewed as a system”. It instantly reshaped my perspective. I had an “Aha!” moment. It gave me the context to understand my differentiated knowledge and experience. I understood where and how I fit in.
I sense that most people suffer from confusion and frustration from a lack of context for what they do. While I believe everyone should buy and read Out of the Crisis, it is not an easy read for the new worker.
This year I discovered two books that I feel are more accessible: Improving Performance Through Statistical Thinking and Statistical Thinking: Improving Business Performance. Both provide the worker a frame for understanding their job, how it fits within an organization, and how to work better, both individually and together.
These books aren’t just for quality people. In fact I think they are more helpful to everyone else–Marketing, R&D, Design & Development, Manufacturing, Sales, Accounting, Finance, Legal, and any other department I might have missed. I think every worker who reads them will have an “Aha!” moment, and can immediately benefit from them.
Dr. Deming pointed out, “It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best.” You already do your best, but with confusing and frustrating results. These books are wonderful resources to help you understand what you should do so that your best efforts produce satisfying results; ones that make you feel good and proud.
I feel it’s important for me to say this: Don’t let the reference to Statistics in their titles scare you off. You don’t need to know any Statistics to read them. In fact, I feel you will benefit more if you didn’t know any Statistics. You will learn three important lessons from these books:
- All work occurs in a system of interconnected processes
- Variation exists in all processes, and
- Understanding and reducing variation are keys to success
 Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Center for Advanced Engineering Study, MIT. 1991. Print. ISBN 0-911379-01-0
 Britz, Galen C., Donald W. Emerling, Lynne B. Hare, Roger W. Hoerl, Stuart J. Janis, and Janice E. Shade. Improving Performance Through Statistical Thinking. Milwaukee, WI: ASQ Quality Press. 2000. Print. ISBN 0-87389-467-7
 Hoerl, Roger, and Ronald D. Snee. Statistical Thinking: Improving Business Performance. Pacific Grove, CA: Duxbury, Thomson Learning. 2002. Print. ISBN 0-534-38158-8
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