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H. James Harrington

Quality Insider

The Impossible Dream

Be a dream maker, not just a dreamer.

Published: Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - 05:00

In Miguel de Cervantes' The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha, Don Quixote dreams of being a brave knight who rides a great steed to fight for what is right. That dream turned into a vision where he and his squire, Sancho Panza, were fighting dragons and saving fair damsels in distress. The vision spurred him into action. Although his dragon may have been a windmill, with its sails whirling, he mistakes it for a four-armed giant and his fair-haired damsel turns out to be a roadside inn's serving wench and part-time prostitute, Aldonza.

But he took action based upon his dream that produced results; he became more than he was and added value to the people he came in contact with. Or, as it's put in the lyrics from the musical “Man of La Mancha”:

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.”
—Gloria Steinem, U.S. writer and activist


We talk a lot about having visions and documenting them, but even before we have a vision, we dream of what could be, and that is the stimulus that creates our visions. The Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, dreamed of making the United Arab Emirates not dependent on oil, for he realized that sometime in the future, the oil supply would dry out. He dreamed of castles built on sand, a city that would be the heart of Middle East business.

The following photo is of the main street in Dubai in 1990—not much to get excited about, but then the dream began to take shape.

This is a picture of the same street at the same location today. (By the way, Dubai's oil industry is an insignificant part of its gross national product at the present time.)

We all have dreams; as individuals, most of us have four really big dreams:

We dream of getting our first car. That first car makes us independent. We no longer have to wait for our parents to take us places. We have been given our freedom. It may not be the best or fastest car, but it is ours and we love it.

We dream of finding our spouse. We all look for and need someone with whom we can share our successes and failures, to share our lives and build a future together. We all want to be able to look into that special person's eyes and know that person will care, and continue to care, even as we make errors and have failures. We look for someone who, 50 years from when you met, still looks at you with the same loving and caring as they did on your wedding day.

This is the most important decision you will make in your life. If you don’t have enough ability to select a spouse with whom you can make a life, how can you hope to make good business decisions?

We dream of owning our own home. Everyone dreams of having his or her own home. It may be a vine-covered cottage near a stream or a penthouse high atop a building with hinged chimneys to allow the clouds to pass by. It is the place where you and your spouse are safe from the rest of the world, where you can be yourself and raise your family.

We dream of having children. It is amazing how much you can love these little ones and how their lives become such an integral part of your life. They become your legacy, the part of you that lives on after you pass away.

The question is: “Are you a dreamer, a dream breaker, or a dream maker?”

Too many of us are just dreamers; we are daydreamers—we dream and put off until tomorrow rather than doing something about making those dreams real. We tell ourselves that we need to stay with reality.

Or maybe it isn't us, but those around us who keep our dreams from happening. Too many managers are dream breakers. We all seem to want to play the devil’s advocate. Instead of trying to help develop the dream, we look for all the negative parts of the dream and try to break it down. Too few of us are the angel’s advocate—the one who helps people capture and build upon their dreams, and helps turn those dreams into reality.

“You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’”
—George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright


Far too few of us are dream makers—people like John F. Kennedy, who said “Why not?” and then made the dream of landing on the moon a reality.

I have a unique way of categorizing people. I think of them as three different food items that change after putting into boiling water. (The boiling water simulates the pressure we all face in our daily lives.)

Carrot people. When you get a raw carrot, it is hard, firm, and crispy. You put it into boiling water and it comes out limp and a side dish, not the main course on any dinner table. Carrot people go through life as followers, doing what they have to do to get by, nothing more.

Egg people. An egg in its raw state is almost the perfect package, hard on the outside and soft on the inside. It contains life-giving substance. Put it into boiling water and it becomes hard-boiled all the way through. We have a lot of hard-boiled people, those who care about themselves and nobody else. They look out for themselves and take advantage of other people; they have completely lost their compassion. They are people for whom everything is me, me, me—not we, we, we.

Coffee-bean people. Take ground coffee beans, put them into boiling water, and soon a delightful aroma fills the room and the crystal clear water takes on a beautiful dark brown color. With the carrot and the egg you throw away the water after you cook them, but not with coffee. It has eliminated that waste. You pour the coffee into your favorite cup; the aroma and taste wakes you up in the morning and settles you down after a fine meal in the evening. The coffee bean has taken the water and transformed it into something better; it has taken its environment and made something better out of it.

Coffee-bean people do exactly the same thing; they enter into the frantic world we live in and add value to it, bringing more joy and prosperity to the people they come into contact with as well as themselves. They measure their riches by the friends they make, not by the dollars they have in their bank account. We all need to become coffee-bean people.

Today, only our best is good enough. In sports, the high jumper who clears the bar must always improve because the bar moves up for the next jump. The same is true in business; no matter how good we are, the bar is continuously moving up so we must continue to improve. If your organization is the benchmark for anything, that's both good and bad. It's good because you're setting the standard for the rest of the world. It's bad because it's easy to copy you and then improve upon what you created.

Each of us has to excel in everything we do. To excel:

• We need to have a passion for our job—never being satisfied with the job we are doing and always looking for a way to do it better.

• We need to have integrity in everything we do, believing that honesty is the best policy.

• We need to be more creative in the way we do things, always challenging the status quo.

• We need to take pride in what we do. When you go home at night, we need to be able to look in the mirror and be able to say, “I did a great job today.”

• We need to enjoy our work. Come to work with a smile on your face. Look for ways to make your work fun. A frown just creates wrinkles.

• We need to be thankful that we have a job—millions of people around the world would give their eye teeth to be in your place.

• We need to lead our organizations as if the rest of the world is looking over our shoulder, because they are.

• We need to take prudent risks; we need to dare to fail for that is the way we learn.

• We need to look at profitability as a sign of our worth. Profit is the way customers show the worth of your output. It is a measure of customer satisfaction.

• We need to embrace change as an opportunity, not as a problem. We need to use it as a stepping stone to our future. If we don’t, it will be a tombstone hung around our neck.

• We need to spice up our business processes to keep ahead of our competition. In cooking we add spice to food to bring out the flavor and to make it much better than it was. In business, SPICE stands for structured process improvement for continuous excellence.

• We need to excel in business and our personal life. All businesses need a three-to-five year SPICE program defined and budgeted.


I once heard a story about animals in Africa from Abe Gubegna, an Ethiopia writer and journalist:

“Every day in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.

"Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows that it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.

"It doesn’t matter whether you are a gazelle or a lion. When the sun comes up, you better be running.”

In today’s fast-moving economy often continuous improvement will not do the job that needs to be done. We need to redefine things. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “You can’t put a man in a coat he wore as a boy.” And that is exactly what continuous improvement tries to do. If we buy a boy new suit at age 10, at age 11 we move the buttons over. At age 12, we lower the cuffs and sleeves. But by the time he is 13 there is nothing we can do; we have to go out a buy a new coat. This is exactly what happens in our businesses. We need to do an organizational alignment activity about every five years. There is a better way; you just need to find it or someone else will.

I will close with a statement from Howard Schultz, chairman of the board, Starbucks:

“Care more than others think wise;

Risk more than others think safe;

Dream more than others think practical;

Expect more than others think possible.”

And I would add, "Do more than others think can be done.”


About The Author

H. James Harrington’s picture

H. James Harrington

H. James Harrington is CEO of Harrington Management Systems, which specializes in total quality management (TQM), Six Sigma, lean, strategic planning, business process improvement, design of experiments, executive management mentoring, preparing complete operating manuals, organizational change management, ISO 9000, ISO 14000, and TRIZ. Harrington is a prolific author, having written hundreds of technical reports, magazine articles, and more than 35 books. He has more than 55 years of experience as a quality professional. Harrington is a past president of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the International Academy for Quality (IAQ).


Great article!

I really enjoyed your article. It is a reminder to all of us that without dreams we are without hope. As we dream of greater things we strive to reach them - whether at work or in our personal lives. Even when we fail we are still moving towards our goal. I often share your articles with co-workers and friends - this is definitely one to share! I look forward to your article in each issue of Quality Digest.