The American Society for Quality (Now officially just “ASQ”) has a long and rich history of advocacy and teaching in the field of quality improvement. The origins of the quality movement are reflected in the Society’s original name- ASQC, or the American Society for Quality Control. The pioneers of the quality movement, W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran, Phil Crosby, and others, got their starts in manufacturing. They learned how to apply the tools of statistical analysis, to the capabilities and behaviors of manufacturing processes. Wonderful progress was achieved in business and later in government.
But even as the world became familiar with flow charts, root cause analysis, and upper control limits, we – and ASQ – experienced a different kind of limit in our improvement work. The human factor in all processes generates patterns of variation in sense-making, belief, and behavior. Our desire for stable, predictable, and controllable processes- often achievable on the factory floor – is typically hard to achieve in our human interactions. Among the pioneers of the quality improvement movement, Deming was especially astute in addressing this. He taught us to drive fear out of the workplace, to change a process rather than blame the people in it, and that the needs and wants of a customer may not even be clear to the customer.
In his recent “View From the Q” blog post, ASQ’s Paul Borawski presents a summary of the Society’s most recent “Future Study.” As Paul mentions, ASQ convenes a group of people every few years to talk about the “future of quality.” Their report is at http://asq.org/public/view-from-the-q/asq-2011-forces-summary.pdf The report focuses on trends such as globalization and social responsibility. It offers predictions about the consequences of the accelerating pace of change, and the aging of our population. The report takes encouragement from a prediction made by quality improvement guru Joe Juran. Juran predicted that the 21st century would be the “century of quality.”
My own view, however, is that the future of the quality movement lies in the prediction of Stephen Hawking. Hawking famously predicted that “the 21st century will be the century of complexity.” What does this mean? Are the two predictions mutually exclusive?
The intended outcome of most business processes is product or service that is consistent, meets specification, and meets the needs and wants of the customer. Significant deviation from the intended norm is not only unwanted, we seek to eliminate it. In this sort of process, if we possess the knowledge and have the means, we can follow the steps and get the intended product or service. But what about other kinds of processes? We can’t control or manage the stock market’s fluctuations, or assure that kids in school will learn what we teach.
Unlike the linear and deterministic flow of technical processes, complex processes are typically non-linear and unpredictable. We humans each see the world in our own way, and working together to solve a problem can be messy and difficult. We “don’t know what we don’t know,” and sometimes “stuff happens” – emergent behaviors in the system we could not have predicted, no matter how much we study its parts. Prediction and control are difficult, or impossible.
So what does this mean for the “future of quality?” Our processes of work, as Deming taught us, “are perfect. they are perfectly designed to give us the results we are getting.” So we humans sit around the table together, mapping value streams, envisioning future states, and trying to implement changes that will yield desired results. In my experience, human dynamics and processes always exhibit some complex characteristics. When we are far from agreement and far from certainty about what’s happening, we need a different sort of method than we have in traditional quality improvement.
The good news is that the pioneers of applying complex systems science to human dynamics, have built frameworks and methods to help us respond to the complexity in our organizations. It is my belief that the real “future of quality” lies in understanding the “both…and…” nature of our process improvement challenges. It is my hope that those in the ASQ global community will explore the teaching of thought-leaders like Ron Heifetz, Dave Snowden, Dick Knowles, and Meg Wheatley. From this new perspective, we can make both Dr. Juran and Dr. Hawking right.
Bruce Waltuck, M.A., Complexity, Chaos, and Creativity
NOTE: For more on the ideas in this post, please see my Complexity and Chaos Primer, recently published by the Human Development and Leadership Division of ASQ. See also, my archived presentation from the recent ASQ WCQI in Pittsburgh, and my new video interviews for I-OPEN, the Institute for Open Economic Networks.