The end of “AS IF…” – A Wish for the New Year

I’m not sure where the tradition of “new year’s resolutions” came from. There is nothing especially compelling about the passage of January 1st, and we know that in other cultures, this is not the beginning of the “new year.” But just as our planet and moon do move annually around the sun, perhaps we take our inspiration from these celestial patterns.

In a video message on his blog, Paul Borawski of ASQ recently asked what those of us involved with process and organization improvement might wish for this new year. For me personally, a new job would be most helpful. If someone is out there and granting my occasional wish, please do respond to that one. On a more global scale, I do have one wish for everyone involved in organizational life, and perhaps anyone in any sort of community or group.

Those who have historically pronounced themselves members of the “quality improvement” profession, have their roots in the pioneering work of people such as Joseph Juran and W. Edwards Deming. Both of them got justifiably famous for their work in applying statistical methods to the analysis of business processes, particularly in manufacturing. Such processes, however length and complicated they might be, were essentially linear and deterministic. If you followed the flow chart, step by step, you’d get the widget when you came to the end of the assembly line.

Such processes can be managed and changed, to bring them into statistical “control.” That is, to eliminate most variation in the quality of the finished product, so it conforms to specification. Since the discoveries of Isaac Newton, humans have looked at the universe as being rather like a machine. We tend to prefer things in our lives that are stable, predictable, and controllable. The newspaper shows up on the step each morning; the check IS in the mail. On the shop floor, managers can get the right people with the right technical knowledge, and the right equipment, to assure that the process stays “in control.”

But as Deming knew, and as discoveries in the natural sciences have clearly shown in the recent decades, we humans do not interact the way things do on the shop floor. Frequently, we exercise discretion and judgment, and behave in ways that are non-linear, and complex. This means that the localized interactions of individuals produce emergent patterns of behavior- patterns that could not be predicted by analyzing either the individual parts, or the past performance of the system. We see the real complexity of this behavior all the time in our lives, from the relationship of parent to child, all the way to our workplace dynamics.

Complicated problems in organizations can be handled with the right people, knowledge, and resources. But complex problems – those that challenge our beliefs – are different. Any change in a complex human system typically creates a move towards the ideas of some, and away from the ideas of others. The methods of traditional process improvement are great at addressing technical, or complicated problems. But they are not suitable for responding to complex, or adaptive problems.

My wish for the new year then, is to see the end of what I call “As if. . .” behavior. It is sadly common for people throughout organizations to treat what are in fact complex or adaptive problems, AS IF they were just technical or complicated. The challenges of leadership; the consequences of change; the failure of long-term strategic visions, are all examples of truly complex problems. Whenever people enter into dialogue about a common issue or problem, the dynamics will be complex.

The tools and methods of traditional process improvement won’t work on these kinds of problems. Thankfully, there is another way. The perspective of complexity- what scientists call complex adaptive systems – offers a new perspective on complex human dynamics. The tools and methods built with a complexity perspective, help us see and make sense of emerging patterns in our organizations. From that new understanding and developing coherence, we can work together to design and implement effective responses.

There is almost always at least some complex human element, in any process change. The next time you are inquiring about a problematic process, don’t act “as if” it was purely technical or complicated. Look through the new lens, and see in a new way.

Bruce

So, the disclaimer. The American Society for Quality, has asked me to participate in their new social media initiative. I am one of a number of people identified as “Voices of Influence.” For those who follow such things, I have been a leading voice on the evolving work of quality, process, and organization improvement for over a decade. My work has been published in the Journal for Quality and Participation, Quality Digest, and more. It has been my privilege and pleasure to have taught and presented throughout the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and Southeast Asia, on the work of quality and process improvement.

So, ASQ has asked me to occasionally post here, in response to posts made by Paul Borawski, ASQ’s Executive Director. We do not agree on all of the issues confronting ASQ and the global quality movement, and I think that is a good thing. It is through the diversity of our thinking, that new ideas and opportunities emerge.

To get the legal bit out of the way, here is the disclaimer that I am supposed to share with you about my participation in this ASQ effort:

I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive a variety of quality resources as honorarium from ASQ in exchange for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own.

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