This month I struggled with keeping up with my requirements as an Influential Voice blogger. Besides the personal summer distractions of my son participating in the neighborhood swim team competitions and all that entails (personal volunteer time as “skilled labor) June is the semi-annual “get the vehicles maintained” (major hit to the checkbook) and, of course, the serendipitous destruction of about 10% of the electronics in the house (send back a 3 month old laptop for replacement, send back an 8 month old car navigation system for repair, home server crashing, replacing the power sensor on the outside A/C tower, replacing the power adapter for another laptop—you get the drift). Focus has not been on the task.
For inspiration, I turn to my fellow Influential Voice bloggers to kick-start the brain for ideas. Starting with Paul Borawski and the ASQ Future of Quality research, I went over to Dan Zrymiak and his discussion about making sausages. That blog mixed with the ideas of Dan Pink , Annie Murphy Paul’s latest blog post, innovation, and right-brained thinking led me to the current topic: The future of quality is not in tools but in the way we think.
Consider the following: Most people’s entrance into quality is through conformance. Conformance is a structured approach to ensuring standards are being met. Common tools of the trade are a checklist, some form of procedure, a measuring device, and internal fortitude behind not coming off the interpretation not matter how hard another person tries to change your definition. Conformance is left-brained thinking (for a fluffy definition of left- versus right-brain thinking see this blog post). Left-brained thinking is a very common approach to learning. Learning by rote, by repetition, by practice is a common approach for acquiring a skill. Work that involves a process is often left-brained. ISO standards require left-brained thinking. Left-brained thinking is often comfortable because it often represents something tangible, especially when making comparisons.
Unfortunately, there is a cost in staying in the left-brained world. My metaphor is a race horse with blinders; the view is the finish line and no other inputs are welcome. This tends to provide a myopic view of the world. It also stifles learning, and by learning I mean true understanding of why we use a particular tool for a particular situation. When a person learns a new concept, they start in the left-brained world to acquire self-confidence in the tool use. Often the strict left-brained individuals get “stuck in a rut” because they may think that tool works only in that situation. If I take the individual that is not well trained in a particular tool and place them in a different environment they could become indecisive. Unless they truly understand the tool they cannot take it out of the environment that they are used to. You can see this manifested in having a particular flavor of tool for a particular industry.
Right brained individuals understand the power of the left brain and then take the risk of applying it to a different situation. I would argue Walter Shewhart was one of these people. He truly understood the concept of how sampling over time will produce a normal distribution—a basic statistical concept. How could he apply that concept to managing processes? With a little trial and error (and some journalistic license on my part) the control chart was born. Some of the great quality thinkers are/were right brained individuals: Joe Juran and the Pareto chart, Kaoru Ishikawa and the fishbone diagram, Jack Youden and Youden plots. I would argue that innovators are right brained thinkers.
I am not here to espouse one type of thinking for another. I am here to state that the natural evolution of innovation involves the transition of left-to-right brained thinking. Innovators can operate in both worlds. Quality needs to have more innovators; more folks who can take the structured concepts we learned as quality conformists and re-purpose these concepts to a more dynamic world. Additionally, these same folks have to clearly communicate the transition. Here is where Annie Murphy Paul comes in. She has a blog about learning that I really enjoy and the latest post strikes home. A teacher learns just as much from the student and this learning allows them to take the student further in their development. When I was teaching statistics my challenge was in the communication of the why we did what we did. Often, while clarifying the required left-brained thinking tasks, the other hemisphere would be restructuring my neural network to provide clarifying examples to explain the why. It was strange, exhilarating, and frustrating to my colleagues who complained that I often changed things on the fly. All I was doing was meeting the student’s needs.
This post is getting kind of long so let me summarize where we need to take this. As quality professionals we need to continue to evolve and innovate. It stimulates the left-to-right brained transition. We should not be happy in that quality is just conformance. In order to innovate we need to provide new approaches to the timeless concepts of quality. The only way to do this is to innovate. Learn the why of the concept, communicate the concept, experiment with the concept, and don’t be afraid to bend the concept to create something new. For in this way we learn about concept capability and how far we truly can go with change.