Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute.
Long before Adele and Lady Gaga spoke their first words, The Beatles and The Beach Boys were music industry leaders in the US and UK, as well as worldwide airwave competitors. While neither group may have heard of Alfred Politz, a pioneer in the field of market research, they would have surely appreciated his perspective on competition, borrowed by Dr. Deming for use on the opening page of The New Economics. “Nothing can do you so much harm,” Politz fancied, “as a lousy competitor. Be thankful for a good competitor.” For 50 years, Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson have acknowledged each other’s contributions to their own song writing. On several occasions, Wilson praised The Beatles’ album Rubber Soul as providing immediate inspiration for his classic love song, God Only Knows. In turn, McCartney has often placed God Only Knows at the top of his all-time favorites list.
My appreciation of Wilson and The Beach Boys has grown significantly in the past few years after viewing the Brian Wilson “biopic” Love and Mercy. Through this blast from my past, I was reminded of another Beach Boys’ classic, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, and the yearning, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long.” In reflecting on this adolescent wishfullness, I propose a wishfullness that organizations; public, private, and even governments; improve their understanding of variation and how it impacts the systems they design, produce, and operate.
Sixteen years ago, I visited the elementary school classroom of our then 8-year old son. At his request, I met with his classmates and shared stories about rocket science, given my prior employment in the industry. I presented several videos of rocket launches, including the Space Shuttle. I also used the opportunity to expose these young minds to the concept of a theory, as well as the concept of variation. Given my daily efforts to explain these concepts to adults, including rocket scientists, I wondered how 8-year olds thought about theories and variation. Upon asking if any could offer a definition of a theory, one raised her hand and replied, with little hesitation, “a theory is a prediction of the future.” Needless to say, I was astounded by the clarity of her answer. (All I could add, quietly, so not to confuse her, was “with the chance of being wrong.” To paraphrase Russell Ackoff, learning occurs when our predictions are wrong; when our best intentions lead to unexpected outcomes (as when the pattern of variation changes) and we see our theory in need of revision.)
I thereupon seized the moment by inviting her to join me in front of her classmates to participate in an experiment with a small glass marble, an offer she readily accepted. The experiment involved holding the marble in my right hand, at knee-height, and, upon releasing it, asking her to predict where it would land. Without prior data, she predicted a location. The marble landed several inches away. The experiment continued with a location prediction when the marble was dropped a second time. With little hesitation, she predicted that the marble would land on the same location as the first drop. Wouldn’t it be nice if it did? It didn’t. As the experiment continued, she and her classmates learned about the inevitability of variation, that the marble would land in a different location with every drop. For a few minutes, we also explored the many causes of this variation in landing location, including subtle changes in the release height as well as orientation of the marble. Wouldn’t it be nice if, years later, they entered the workforce with an ever-evolving appreciation of variation and its extensive causes? Focused instead on managing variation, not eliminating it, realizing that even cloning does not produce identical offspring. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were mindful of Dr. Deming’s adage, “Variation there will always be, between people, in output, in service, in product. What is the variation trying to tell us about a process, and about the people that work in it?”