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Departments: First Word

  
Mike Richman

Overcoming Orwell

An individual take on standardization

 

 

Our regular bookend columnists, Dirk “First Word” Dusharme and the “Quality Curmudgeon” himself, Scott Paton, have been looking a little peaked lately, so we’ve given them the month off to recharge their batteries. At this very moment, I think that they’re off together somewhere at a “conference”--more likely, the Mavericks surf contest in Half Moon Bay. The idea of these two guys dressing up in black neoprene is a scary thought.

In all seriousness, Dirk and Scott are two of the finest colleagues I’ve ever had the chance to know. They’re smart, creative and professional, and sometimes, goofy. In short, they’re completely unique individuals. I respect them for their differences, just as I would hope they’d respect me for mine. What I think important they may find inconsequential, and vice-versa. We don’t always agree (especially around deadlines), but as long as we honor each other’s viewpoints, everything is just peachy. That’s the beauty of being an individual.

I realize that this is no thunderbolt of wisdom. Heck, my year-old, identical-twin nieces are individuals, too, even if sometimes they seem to share thoughts more easily than they do toys. Each of us is the captain of his or her own ship, and we will sail where we please, dammit--within the restrictions of legal requirements, decency and the need to support ourselves, of course. In the professional arena, this concept of mine expresses itself in a firm and long-held belief that each person should be given wide latitude to perform his or her assigned tasks as they see fit, as long as the job gets done.

So imagine my wary surprise to find myself in the quality field a few years ago. When first contemplating this industry, all I could see was an obsession with standardization, which, I then believed, manifested itself in production environments as a rigidly automated series of processes. Even the shop floor employees appeared to be a group of interlocking automatons. Deviation was the enemy. Maybe individuality was, too.

To a quality rookie like me, it all seemed like something out of George Orwell’s 1984, with W. Edwards Deming playing the part of the stern, all-seeing and all-knowing O’Brien. It was quite an alarming image, one that really burned in my mind--until I started actually talking to people who worked in the field.

Far from being mindless drones, I found them (meaning you) to be a group of hardworking, competent and resourceful… yes… individuals. I see now that, instead of limiting the potential for creative solutions to problems, standardized processes actually free quality professionals to examine the big-picture issues that allow their organizations to compete more effectively in the world economy. Those issues are daunting indeed--outsourcing and offshoring, hazardous product and emissions directives, cost of quality, obtaining and gauging customer feedback, etc. There are a great many concerns for quality professionals to worry about; standardization ensures that part A meshing with widget B the same way every time on the production line isn’t among them.

I’m not sure what Orwell would think of our industry today, 23 years past the setting of his bleak prophecy. Hopefully he would come to understand, as I have, that in our manufacturing- and sales-based system, standardization is the key to improved quality products and services, and healthier U.S. corporations that are better prepared to compete.

Maybe he would understand, maybe not. Of course, the guy was an ironclad, dyed-in-the-wool socialist. Increasing corporate profits by creating better, higher-selling products wasn’t real high on his list of concerns. So… probably not.