In our last post, we looked at eliminating toxic beliefs that choke organizations. In this post, we focus in on the toxic belief of wanting perfection, and how this relates to the serious business of Quality.
Perfection – an unattainable goal
In his article entitled ‘5 Toxic Beliefs that Ruin Careers‘, Geoffrey James cites the belief ‘My goal is to be perfect or do something perfectly.’ This is scientifically impossible. Why?
We know from experience that, no matter what we do, we will never be able to always achieve the same result when we perform a repetitive action, or a routine activity. Think about going to work every morning. We will never be able to get to work exactly at the same time every day. The reason for this is called variation. There is an intrinsic variation associated with EVERY activity and every process. The output of every process varies and oscillates over time.
If we look for “perfection”, it means we are not accounting for what we can realistically do, or for the existence of variation; we don’t acknowledge the fact that entropy exists and always increases. We aim for perfection, and when the results we get are “not in line” with our expectations, our frustration increases.
Predictability yes, perfection no
Trying to be perfect is equivalent to complying constantly and continuously with specifications and aiming to maximize the performance of people, processes and production. The reality is that the only way to comply with specifications, or in other words, the only way to aim for “perfection” is to make sure that we are reliable. The word reliability has to be defined more precisely though, and the only way to define it is in a statistical sense. As a matter of fact, reliability is intimately connected with predictability.
Perfection is a scientific impossibility. What we can and must aspire to is predictability. We say that a performance, the output of a process or the characteristics of a batch of production, are predictable when the results oscillate “within certain limits”. These limits are intrinsic to the process and are the simple manifestation of the variation associated to the process itself. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many times we repeat the action, the process, the production batch, the only possible outcome is a series of values that oscillate around some average, and the predictability is guaranteed by this oscillation being within the “natural limits” (intrinsic) of variation.
The right approach to measuring performance is fundamental for any serious attempt we make to improve. First, we have to understand what we are capable of doing, i.e. assess the ability of our processes, our people, our machinery and systems to perform to achieve our goal. Only once we have reliable, predictable results can we improve them through a relentless and systemic feedback process of Planning, Implementing, Checking and Implementing improvements. This is W. Edwards Deming’s PDCA cycle, and it is the bedrock of any serious attempt to achieve Quality.
Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s indefatigable effort during the later part of his life was to spread this message, and to promote the use of statistical methods, namely the subset called Statistical Process Control (SPC), to improve processes and to set appropriate measurements. The body of knowledge which is the result of this effort is called the ‘Theory of Profound Knowledge”, and it defines the connections among Management, Psychology and Statistics. It is the at the heart of everything we achieve with the Decalogue Methodology and Intelligent Management.