Essay by Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director
This week, our journey in the realm of quality management takes us onto an important side road. Last week, we left off with a brief introduction to Dr. Deming and his seminal position within the history of quality management. We’ll come back to Dr. Deming time and again on this journey. Our side road this week leads us to consider the difference between continual and continuous improvement.
The language we use is very important; our words have meaning. And while there’s no time to get into an analysis of linguistics and the art and science of communication, this notion of meaning must not be overlooked. In this context – understanding quality management principles – our words are intended to drive actions that affect the business’s performance. Because the quality of the business’s performance – whether the business has one employee or thousands – relies on having alignment between what’s expected, and what’s delivered, understanding the words of quality management is foundational.
In this instance, one could think the difference between the meaning of “continual” and “continuous” is a trivial one. I thought so when the need to shift from the latter to the former came-up years ago.
At the time, the manufacturing businesses with which I was working were certified to the ISO9001 standard. Certified, in this instance, means the quality management system has been audited, by a third party, against the standard’s requirements and found to be in compliance to the standard.
Sometime during the 1990s, after a revision to the standard had been issued, the auditors – the folks from the third-party organizations who audit the business’s quality management systems – starting making the distinction between continuous and continual improvement. I found the distinction trivial. Based on a recent Google search of quality management related articles, a number of folks still do. When I learned Dr. Deming didn’t think so, I stopped thinking the distinction was trivial.
Foundational to Dr. Deming’s thinking is the importance of knowledge, the thing with which human beings, as mammals possessing the highest level of consciousness within the Earth system, are uniquely endowed. Knowledge is not data. We use data to come to knowledge, and this doesn’t happen until we first arrive at an insight. Insight, as far as we can tell, is something unique to human beings. In simplest terms, insight is that “Aha” moment that occurs when our consciousness grasps something new. And insights do not occur continuously – as in a stream of flowing water – put rather in “packets”, or in quantum physics terms, quanta.
While it would be fun to go off on a tangent about the difference between what Newtonian physics says about the cosmos, and what we know from quantum physics, it’s enough – at this point – to consider two things. First, the difference is marked and profound; this cannot be overstated. In fact, we have yet to see the effects – at least in the realms of philosophy – of our understanding of quantum physics. We’ve certainly done a marvelous job applying quantum physics to technology. For instance, it has brought us the atomic bomb and all of the digital machines we use so easily. What we haven’t done is bring to the fore the implications quantum physics has for how we think about the world around us.
The second thing that comes to us from quantum physics is this: That which is infinitely large (e.g., the ends of the universe) and that which is infinitely small (e.g., electrons orbiting a nucleus) are intimately interconnected. In other words, the whole of the cosmos – from right here on Earth, to the ends of the universe – is interconnected. Another notion, related to the previous idea, is this: That which is made manifest in the infinitely small is also made manifest in the infinitely large – as well as every point in between. In summary, quantum physics teaches us the importance of thinking in systems, and of the concepts of emergence and emergent properties.
Insight, therefore, is an emergent property of the Earth system, and in particular, human consciousness. While the conditions under which insight occurs are varied, there are things we can do to bring them about. In other words, we can be intentional about setting-up the context through which insight occurs. For example, we can read a book, listen to a lecture, or simply seek to learn something new in the myriad ways of doing so. Of course, these actions don’t guarantee insights; however, the point is that we can do work with the intent of reaching an insight, or packet of knowledge.
Science, as a practice, is all about reaching insights. We rely so heavily on science that we teach our children about it in grade school. In fact, all of us ought to remember learning “The Scientific Method” at some point before going on to high school. The scientific method leads us back to Dr. Deming and what he taught about applying it to quality management; it’s also foundational to understanding the difference between continual improvement and continuous improvement.
We’ll be taking next week off for the holiday break and will take-up our journey in 2021 with what Dr. Deming taught. In the meantime, I hope you have a blessed holiday with your loved ones and look forward to connecting in 2021.