The U.S. system of government is designed to be continually improved with the aim of “We the People” making progress toward “a more perfect Union.” The opportunity is to consider applying a proven method for reducing imperfection that will produce results where we all gain or, at least, are not any worse off.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” – Preamble to the U.S. Constitution
A problem with the word “perfect” is that the term can be used in a context where perfection can be perceived as being obtainable. The U.S. Founding Fathers were careful to prevent citizens from drawing this conclusion by using the phrase “more perfect.” Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi reinforced the “more perfect” theme in his statement: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
A 2016 Gallup survey indicated that 89% of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit. Many of the Founding Fathers were influenced by the biblical philosophy that only God is perfect and that man is imperfect but is expected to improve. Consequently, it might be concluded that life is all about reducing imperfection.
W. Edwards Deming, who is the founding father of many effective quality improvement methods, concluded that if he was to reduce his message to just a few words, it all had to do with reducing variation. Reducing variation is synonymous with reducing imperfection. A description of variation in a context that supports the interrelationship between variation, perfection, excellence, and quality is as follows:
“In simple yet profound terms, variation represents the difference between an ideal and an actual situation.
An ideal represents a standard of perfection—the highest standard of excellence—that is uniquely defined by stakeholders, including direct customers, internal customers, suppliers, society, and shareholders. Excellence is synonymous with quality, and excellent quality results from doing the right things, in the right way.
The fact that we can strive for an ideal but never achieve it means that stakeholders always experience some variation from the perfect situations they envision. This, however, also makes improvement and progress possible. Reducing the variation stakeholders experience is the key to quality and continuous improvement.”
Ideals are derived from basic human needs. America’s ideals were identified in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Deming concluded that, without knowledge of common and special cause variation, 95% of actions taken to improve a situation results in no improvement and can make things worse. Knowing the difference between common and special cause variation results in a higher success rate because it leads to improving systems. Further, it leads to knowledge through assessments to determine what worked, what did not work, and what might be done differently next time to successfully reduce variation. (Assess your knowledge of the variation paradigm.)
By implementing the methods proven to be effective in reducing variation, the United States has the potential to surpass and then sustain the economic boom and prosperity it experienced after WWII (1947-1977) when the country had a global competitive advantage. But as Deming often remarked: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”
Despite the conclusion drawn by major media outlets such as FORTUNE magazine and U.S. News and World Report that Deming’s work represents one of the most fundamental improvements in business if not human history, Deming’s work is still virtually undiscovered.
When Deming described the scope of the needed transformation, he used the term metanoia, which he defined as “penitence, repentance, reorientation of one’s way of life, spiritual conversion.”Norman Todd elaborated on this premise in his paper Metanoia and Transformation II.
A Way Ahead
Perhaps if more leaders recognize the connection between imperfection and variation, they might become more aware of the connection between science and spirituality. This, in turn, might lead to the broader application of Deming’s teachings.
Leading this change will require that a critical mass of leaders embrace the new paradigm for Quality Leadership that will support a Vision for Transformation.