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Steven Ouellette

Quality Insider

It Is What It Is—Until We Begin to Think Differently

We need to change something about our collective software

Published: Thursday, February 9, 2012 - 17:24

“It is what it is.” I’m hearing that a lot now. I’m OK with it if someone is using it as a shortcut to mean something like the Serenity Prayer. But more and more, I’m hearing people use it in a way that sounds like an expression of helplessness and futility.

As “it is what it is” permeates into casual speech, it molds our thoughts into a state of pliable acceptance, rather than an eagerness to undertake and overcome challenges. It’s the language of a fading colonial power realizing that the “winds of change” beyond its control will blow it about like a floppy rag doll. It’s not the language of innovation and fortitude we have come to expect from modern societies creating and experiencing the best human conditions in history.

What does that have to do with quality? I think the history of quality offers an interesting parallel, and maybe a way through this paradigmatic funk.

Habits of thought have real consequences. This fascinates me. How can something as ephemeral as an idea or thought in one person’s head—nothing more than electrochemical cascades in an isolated bone container—have any effect on reality? And yet it does. Whether we’re talking about the contagious horror that provokes us to demonize those outside our tribes, or the nobler, but no less subjective, ideas of justice and equity, ideas shape our behavior and even our perceptions of the world around us.

Quality case in point: Back in the early days of understanding quality, we definitely had an “it is what it is” mentality. Defects and nonconformances were perceived as inevitable; the best we could do was to inspect out the bad ones. Stuff would come into a process, we would do something to it, stuff would come out of the process, and because defects were inevitable, we would sort through it to find as much of the bad stuff as we could and sell the rest.

For high-volume stuff, we used various sampling plans designed to reduce the risk of rejecting a lot with an “acceptable” level of defects. (For a lot more on this, see my articles, “Psst, Hey Buddy, Wanna Fix?” and “Acceptable Losses?”) Basically, the thinking was that since defects are inevitable, let’s make sure we don’t penalize the producer too much for making at least a predictable amount of them.

This is an early form of process control, and is shown graphically in figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Product control, circa 1950, aka “it is what it is”

Now I can jump ahead because you know what happened next. The laws of physics didn’t change, there was no divine revelation, people in the United States just started thinking about quality in a different way. Not because they were so smart, but because the Japanese happened to listen to W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran, and Arnold Feigenbaum, which changed their way of thinking about quality, and began to rub our noses in it during the 1980s.

That was the dawn of the process control era. We were almost ready to give up our belief in the inevitability of defects and nonconformances, but first we had a stage to go through to learn that. We still sampled the process output, but now we used statistical process control charts as a heuristic tool to determine when it made sense to react by adjusting the process, rather than waiting until we went out of specification or had a defect and began inspecting and sorting the product. First, it is cheaper to adjust a process than to sort and scrap the product, and second, because of the way control charts work, you can detect problems in the process before it gets bad enough to go out of spec or cause a defect. Process control is illustrated in figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Process control 1, circa 1980

It didn’t take long, running a process with this new approach, before we started realizing that maybe defects and nonconformances were not, in fact, inevitable consequences of a process. Now that we were detecting and reacting to external variation with process adjustments (i.e., “special causes”), we also began to see processes exhibit less variation and stay on target. In so doing, our old processes, which had produced “inevitable” defects, now were fully capable of producing defect-free and within specifications.

However, there is a substantial problem with this form of process control: We are still measuring after the process, so when we find a problem, it might be too late, at least for that unit. Pretty quickly, the next obvious step was taken. Rather than measuring the output and adjusting based on what had already happened, we measured the input and the process itself to see if they were where they needed to be to produce the output we wanted, as shown in figure 3 below.

Figure 3: Process control 2, circa 1990

In order to move upstream like this, though, we have to learn about the relationship between our inputs and our process variables, and how they affect the outputs that we’re trying to achieve. That’s done by industrial research of one form or another and can easily be documented on a quality function deployment-type matrix. Lacking that process knowledge is probably why some businesses are stuck on process control 1. If we’re in this phase of process control, we expect high conformance to target and no defects.

Here’s the thing. Each of these revolutions in how we think of quality required nothing more than updating our brain software. Just the ability to consider that a process could produce nearly 100-percent conformance was enough to create processes that did, where they had never existed before. There are some tools, like SPC or experimental design, that we use to support the changes, but they don’t require anything other than thinking of our reality in a different way.

What does that tell me about “It is what it is”?

I see a lot of angst in workers, businesses, students, friends, and family about their jobs, industry, environment, politics, and the world. I think it is just a matter of perspective. Either that, or I’m congenitally optimistic. Heck, I’m writing these articles thinking I might change the world a tiny bit, so I have to admit to the possibility.

Perhaps we are thinking that bad things in business and life are inevitable, just like we did during the product control era. That the best we can do is to react when the inevitable happens. “It is what it is.”

What would happen if we started to think about things in our life more like process control? If we took the time to stop and think a moment, would we find that changing some things we do rather than trying to fix what has already occurred (i.e., process control 1) reduces the problems we have to deal with? Maybe even examine what we do for leading indicators that problems are going to occur, and take action before things get out of hand (i.e., process control 2)?

I don’t know. I’m no self-help guru, just a process engineer. But I do think we need to change something about our collective software. We live in an age of man-made miracles that would have astounded even our recent ancestors. Yet, as the great modern philosopher Louis C. K. says, “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.” We can do things in medicine that were unbelievable just a few years ago. Transportation is safer than ever, and we can circumnavigate the planet in a day (less, if you are in orbit). We can download pictures from Saturn onto our smart phones and have video conferences with people all over the world. Stephen Pinker argues that we’re probably living in the most peaceful time in human existence.

I won’t say that we don’t have problems; we do. But in business when we have problems, we fix them or we go out of business. Businesses that look to the Golden Era of their past accomplishments tend to fade into the past with them.

I guess what I’m calling for is a revitalized approach, an examination of what we do, not a reaction to what we did. A recognition that we have it better off than any previous generation, but that we can help make it better still for more people.

Does that come across as starry-eyed optimism? Then take some time to look at history and see how very far we have come, and in so short a time.

I’m not asking for much, just a little change in in our paradigm.

“It isn’t yet, but it will be.”


About The Author

Steven Ouellette’s picture

Steven Ouellette

Steven Ouellette is the Lead Projects Consultant in the Office for Performance Improvement at the University of Colorada, Boulder. He has extensive experience implementing the systems that allow companies and organizations to achieve performance excellence, as well as teaching Master's-level students the tools used in BPE. He is the co-editor of Business Performance Excellence with Dr. Jeffrey Luftig. Ouellette earned his undergraduate degree in metallurgical and materials science engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and his Masters of Engineering from the Lockheed-Martin Engineering Management Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder.


Re: It Is What It Is...

Yep, let’s just move on from here. Let’s not try to learn from the past, the lessons it has to teach. After all, the past cannot possibly repeat itself, right?

“A statement, if it contains knowledge, makes a prediction, with the chance of being wrong, and fits every observation of the past,” I believe is what W. Edwards Deming said.

Heh, yes exactly Ed. Or even

Heh, yes exactly Ed. Or even more fundamentally, "Why learn from history if problems are inevitable anyway?" Or, more subtley... "Does experience help? NO! Not if we are doing the wrong things. Experience teaches nothing..." -W.E. Deming

It is what it is

I have never heard of this phrase meaning the way you heard it.  However, when it was used it was a statement about we are where we are -- ignore the past because we cannot change one thing that has already happened and so, let's move from here.  So the phrase in my experience has always been used as forward thinking, meaning let's not dwell on the past, we need to dig out from here: because "It is [the stiuation, no matter what path we took] what it is."



I hope so!

Hey Dan, That is good to hear. That sounds more like the "Serenity Prayer" version of it, which I have heard too. (Or maybe you are congenitally optimistic like me!) . But recently, I hear it more like this: . "Did you hear? We lost $ 2 million in supplier quality problems." . "Oh well, it is what it is." *shuffle shuffle* . I'm not sure what it comes from. Maybe a lack of stirring speeches or something. ;-)