Essay by Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director
Happy New Year! Now that we’re back from the holidays, we’ll pick up where we left off in our tour of the world of quality management.
In our last article, we established a foundation for why it is Deming thought in terms of continual, rather than continuous improvement. In this article, we’ll be going deeper into the origins of Deming’s thoughts.
We’ve established a foundation for understanding how it is that knowledge comes in packets of insight, not as a continuous flow. Of course, knowledge of the cosmos – the ordering of the whole of the universe – comes to human beings through the process of learning. Deming held in very high regard the human capacity for learning, which leads to knowledge and eventually to wisdom. Others, such as Peter Senge, have expanded upon this notion. For these thinkers, the highest form of any organization is that of the “learning organization”. Senge considers Toyota – a manufacturer that has been greatly influenced by Deming – as one of the truest examples of a learning organization.
Science, at least for us in this age, is held up as the means by which we learn. Before we get to the practical application of science, or the scientific method and what Deming taught about it, we need to go back in time a bit – quite a bit, actually – and look to the origins of science itself. Our intent is to first put science into some context. This is important to those who aspire to bring about sustainable business.
Sustainable business goes deeper than business as it is practiced today. Sustainable business is emergent. In other words, it has its origins in what preceded it, but with a new twist, one that goes deeper, while reaching beyond what is today. In our age, we are seeing a pressing need to shift modes of thinking, to find new paradigms that provide us with a better way forward. To make this shift, we need to understand the foundations on which we stand – the origins of that which is emergent.
According to scholars, the notion of science has its origins in Aristotle’s thinking (d. 322 BCE). Aristotle combined Plato’s (d. 347 BCE) thoughts about the primacy of reasoning as the pathway to knowledge, with what could be observed in the natural world. It was not, however, until toward the end of the Middle Ages (the late 1600’s) that science, as we think of it today, began to take hold. One may wonder, if Aristotle had such great insights about science, why did it take so long – nearly 2,000 years –before we began to apply it in the Western world? This has to do, primarily, with theological worldviews.
In many ancient civilizations, polytheism led to folks “conceive of the universe as a huge organism dominated by a pantheon of deities and destined to go through endless cycles of birth and rebirth. This made the development of science impossible.” (1) The ancient Hebrews, however, conceived of a God who “has imposed an order on the magnificent works of his wisdom” (Sir. 42:21). Believe it or not, without faith in a transcendent God who orders all things, science would not be possible. In other words, for science to take hold necessitated having faith that certain laws of nature put things into order, and that a transcendent – and yes loving – God would not “move things around” to mess with us. It is literally faith that provides the Western world with science’s foundation.
By the High Middle ages, great thinkers such as Bacon, Aquinas and others, synthesized philosophical and theological insights into the foundations of the modern scientific movement. What’s the point of all of this? It is to recall the ordering of our thought, why it is the way it is, and how our thinking leads to understanding the cosmos itself.
Is Science All There Is?
At this point in human history – and we hear this all the time – science is held-up as the key to resolving all of our problems. It would be foolish to diminish the importance of science: What science shows us about the nature of the cosmos is fundamental to understanding the challenges that will continue to confront our species. But there is something deeper.
As those who aspire to bring about sustainable business, we can never lose sight of the importance of “thinking in systems”. There are systems of thought and these systems precede action; if we do not understand the foundations of these systems, we’ll never be able to move beyond the state in which we find ourselves in the present moment.
What’s important to recognize is that the cosmos is something not of human origin: We did not initiate the Big Bang. Unfortunately, because we have elevated science as the means to removing all mystery, and have relied on a 17th century view of the cosmos (i.e., as a machine that can be reduced to its elemental parts), we find ourselves in quite a fix. We are literally destroying the Earth system because of this inadequate worldview.
Because we tend to be stuck in a Newtonian view of the cosmos, we continue to go about, in a vain attempt, to dissect and control, rather “harmonize” with the system in which we live. We have struggled, and will continue to do so, until we come to a deeper understanding of science as a tool, and not an end-all.
As much as we have learned, and will certainly continue to learn about the cosmos, we will always be left with a mystery. We need to shed the 17th century, Newtonian view and take on the view given to us by Einstein and the quantum scientists. This view sees the cosmos, not as a machine, but rather as a dynamic thing, one that is constantly evolving. This isn’t meant to suggest things are so unstable we cannot come to understand them. What it means is that we must keep things in context. Because we’ve given science such primacy, we tend to consider what the arts – the philosopher, the writer, the theologian, the mystic – tell us as not important. This is a mistake. The advance of sustainable business is predicated on a quantum science view of the cosmos. This means giving credence to what we can learn, not only from the scientist but from the artist, too.
Next week, we’ll come-up from the depths and look at the practical bits that Deming gives us.
“The Church and Science.” How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Regnery History., 2012, pp. 77–77.