Essay by Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director
This week, we’ll pick up where we left off in our journey through what the International Standards Organization (ISO) calls “Quality Management”. In this article, we touch upon what’s happened since the 1987 issuance of the ISO9001 standard and how these changes are reflective of the notion of “continual improvement”.
While leadership’s primary responsibility for the direction of the business may seem obvious today, when 9001 was first issued, there was little written into the standard that addressed this reality. Whether this was an oversight or something the drafters considered self-evident and therefore not worth pointing-out, is something for the historian. What’s important is that the ISO, by virtue of the way it works, listened to the feedback from its volunteers and others, and went about revising the standard. ISO revises standards every five years, and revisions are driven by one of key quality management concepts: continual improvement.
It’s worth taking an excursion into the meaning of continual improvement because this term is perhaps the most important of anything relating to quality management. There are a number of things, such as tools and techniques, important to the practice of continual improvement, but we’ll not get into these here. We’ll leave these to later articles. This particular excursion is focused on words and their meanings.
So, what is a continual improvement?
When I started my apprenticeship in quality management, which was at a time when the US automotive industry was playing catch-up with the likes of Toyota, I was introduced to the term “kaizen”, which is Japanese for an idea not easily translated into English. There are many such terms that come to us from different cultures, and while it may seem easy enough to come up with translations for these terms, this is how things get lost. The word kaizen is one of these instances.
Kaizen is really a philosophy, one rooted in Japanese culture. In other words, the word comes to us from a world that has been shaped in ways different from our own. Kaizen is formed by two characters, one means “change” and the other “good”. Much of the quality literature translates kaizen into “continuous improvement”, but this translation overlooks differences between the Asian and Western worlds. Our Westernized view of improvement, especially in the business world, is much different than what is meant by good. Good is an all-encompassing concept, one that takes on a systemic perspective. I may be going out on a limb here, but with what I know about Asian culture, and its rootedness in the way of the Buddha, good can only be found when one achieves a deep sense of awareness of the interconnectedness of all of life.
The foregoing may seem trivial, but it touches upon a recurring theme that differentiates the sustainable business leader from others. The sustainable business leader must be aware of the good, as it’s thought of above, versus our largely Westernized notions of improvement. We must always be considerate of what is good for all, and not only what improves the bottom-line returns. The deeper sense of kaizen is one we ought to keep in mind, even though we’re constrained by its English translation.
Another seemingly pedantic problem is the difference between continuous improvement and continual improvement. Years ago, and largely because of the English translation of the term kaizen, the term continuous improvement became popular, but there’s a problem with this. The word “continuous” conjures-up notions of a smooth curve, and this isn’t how things work – at least not as far as the way in which organizations ought to behave. To get a better understanding of what is meant here, we turn to Dr. W. Edwards Deming.
Dr. Deming’s contribution to quality management cannot be understated. In fact, much of what he taught forms the foundation of the modern quality movement; yet, when we look to his overarching philosophy – the System of Profound Knowledge – his most valuable contributions are largely overlooked. Dr. Deming’s insights into human nature, and the behavior of organizations, are far-reaching. Many, whether they realize it or not, owe much to Dr. Deming’s thought.
We’ll unpack Dr. Deming’s view of the difference between continuous improvement and continual improvement in next week’s article.