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Quality Transformation With David Schwinn



To get closer to the truth, you need to open yourself to facts

Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 - 13:03

My wife, Carole, just gave me a shirt emblazoned with, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” It reminded me of an important phenomenon that has been lately grabbing my attention.

Oxford Dictionaries, publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary, has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year. The dictionary defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (And thrive on repetition, I suspect.) I’m reminded of the German propaganda machine preceding and during World War II.

“If you tell the same lie enough times, people will believe it; and the bigger the lie, the better...” said Joseph Goebbels, the Minster for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda during Nazi Germany. “Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will.”

It seems to me that this idea of truth vs. post-truth is pretty important. I think our first job is to figure out what the truth is anyway. I think, as my new shirt says, science is helpful. The discipline of robust scientific verification of whatever is considered scientifically true seems to work pretty well. It seems to support an adage that I first saw on the desk of Warren Tyner, my chief engineer at Ford, during the mid-1970s. It read, “In God we trust; all others bring data.” I am also reminded of the Sufi story of the elephant and the blind men.

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Every one of them touched the elephant.


“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man, who touched the elephant’s leg.

“Oh, no! It is like a rope,” said the second man, who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! It is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man, who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan,” said the fourth man, who touched the ear.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man, who touched the elephant’s belly.

“It is like a solid pipe,” said the sixth man, who touched a tusk.

They began to argue about the elephant, and every one of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated; a wise man was passing by, and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?”

They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched a different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features that you all said.”

We tend to believe what is consistent with our own experience, but our experience is nearly always inadequate when we are dealing with complex subjects. Yet another supporting quote comes to mind:

“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”
—Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (1933)

It seems, then, to me that we are not likely to ever find the pure truth, but if we continually try to seek it, we can find a truth that works for us. This approach to understanding is a little like continual improvement... an essential part of what we in this community all embrace.

As Peter Senge noted in The Fifth Discipline (Crown Business, 2010 edition), when we discover a “truth” that contradicts our own mental models, there is evidence that we tend to either unconsciously or consciously reject that other truth. I challenge all of us to take the unnatural path of attempting to take in, then understand, the foundation of the other “truth,” especially if the contradiction with our own truth or mental model is important.

Because of the popularity and potential devastation caused by this “post-truth” era in which we seem to be, we need to take a next, courageous, and difficult step. We need to challenge the post-truth that is at odds with our own reexamined truth, but we also need to help others understand how we formulated our own truth by simply answering the questions Noriaki Kano posed years ago, before they are asked. He said that if we, as quality improvement professionals and leaders, are given a fact (a truth), we should ask:
• How do you know?
• Where’s the data?
• How did you get it?

This is not an easy path to be on these days, but as I said before, I believe it to be important. Our silence is frequently interpreted as agreement. That seems irresponsible when post-truth is so predominant.

Martin Luther King reminds us: “A time comes when silence is betrayal....”

Let us continue seeking and telling the truth. It is essential to our continual improvement efforts, our organizations, our families, our communities, and our world.


About The Author

Quality Transformation With David Schwinn’s picture

Quality Transformation With David Schwinn

David Schwinn, an associate of PQ Systems, is a full-time professor of management at Lansing Community College and a part-time consultant in the college’s Small Business and Technology Development Center. He is also a consultant in systems and organizational development with InGenius and INTERACT Associates.

Schwinn worked at Ford’s corporate quality office and worked with W. Edwards Deming beginning in the early 1980s until Deming’s death.  Schwinn is a professional engineer with an MBA from Wright State University. You can reach him at support@pqsystems.com.  



Every Theory is Correct

"Every theory is correct in its own world, but the problem is that the theory may not make contact with this world. " Dr. W. Edwards Deming

The concept of cyberbalkanization has amplified the possibility of not even being exposed to information that contradicts our mental models.

Dirk van Putten

You have to care, first.

I remember my first Deming Seminar. I had been ordered to go, and really couldn't understand why. How could some old dude talking about statistics and Japanese management, of all things, possibly have anything useful to say about leadership in the military? 

My skepticism lasted until I saw the Red Bead and the Funnel. Those two demonstrations showed me that my view of the world was at best inaccurate, and at worst seriously flawed and harmful. There were answers to problems that other leaders and I had been struggling with for years. That revelation, that significant emotional event (SEE), was re-capped a couple of days later when Deming was describing the evils of performance evaluations. A sergeant from the Marine Corps led a question with, "Dr. Deming, I think your make some good points, but I live in the real world..." Deming stood, and waved to cut the sergeant off. "Young man, I live in the real world. You don't." Whether or not the sergeant got it, I did. I came home from that seminar and began enrolling in every statistics and SPC class I could find. 

My point is, I had to be led to that SEE. I didn't go looking for it, and actively avoided it when the opportunity arose earlier. 

My own belief is that the truth has been politicized. We used to have communications channels that cared more about truth than a point of view, where rigorous fact checking was the norm, and news itself was a loss leader for networks. The advent of cable news and polarized/polarizing channels, polarizing talk radio and other channels now means that you can tune out anyone who might present evidence that contradicts your world view. 

Recently, someone reminded me of an article from Fast Company (http://www.fastcompany.com/52717/change-or-die) that had alarmed me when I originally saw it. Reviewing it, I saw some potential answers for why we have what we have now (post-fact reality). If we spend all our time only listening to viewpoints that reinforce our own, our brains actually begin to get hard-wired to only accept what we hear in those channels as fact, and reject others...we become literally brainwashed. 

I wish I had some answers to the problem...I continue to show everyone I can the Red Bead and the Funnel, and some other exercises I've picked up over the years, to try to find chinks in the armor and get people to acknowledge that maybe they don't really know what they think they know. 

On a humorous note, if you watch Steven Colbert, he had a funny take on the Oxford Dictionary revelation...he claimed that they stole his concept, "truthiness." It's worth a look on YouTube. 

The problem?

The figures don't lie, but liars figure!