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Mike Richman

Quality Insider

The Power of We

Overcoming ‘us’ vs. ‘them’

Published: Thursday, December 24, 2015 - 11:22

Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, in reference to 13 separate American colonies then in rebellion against England, “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang apart.” After the Revolutionary War, and following the conclusion of the endless debates that eventually lead to the formation of this nation’s political system, Franklin was asked by a young woman what sort of government the delegates had created for the citizens of the new United States. “A republic, madam,” he replied. “If you can keep it.”

“Keeping it” has been the mission of the people and government of the United States ever since, and for more than 225 years that mission has been achieved, if sometimes only narrowly. The rise and fall of banks, markets, and political parties; several major wars (civil and otherwise) and dozens of minor ones; the influx of immigrants from literally every other nation on earth; and the emerging and sometimes conflicting rights of various ethnicities, genders, generations, belief systems, and identities have stretched the national fabric to the breaking point time and again. To that point, but never beyond—at least not yet.

In my opinion, 2015 has been the most divisive year the United States has seen since 1968. There are plenty of social and political issues at play at this particular moment in time that tend to cleave people into opposite camps, and the race for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, just now gaining steam, has brought them into sharp relief.

Congress is almost hopelessly partisan. I realize that every politically conscious person in the United States has made that observation, or something similar to it, since the party system first came into being more than 200 years ago. We’re in a place now, however, where representatives and senators, Democratic as well as Republican, build their reputations on their refusal to negotiate with the other side. Obstructionism is a badge of honor.

It wasn’t always this way. In his terrific book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked (Simon & Schuster, 2013), author and political analyst Chris Matthews describes the relationship between Republican president Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill during the 1980s. These were men with vastly different political backgrounds and agendas, but they were able to work together to pass budgets, negotiate and approve treaties, and keep the country safe and strong. These achievements were due to their ability to compromise, and the understanding that it is this skill that allows complex enterprises to function and get things done.

Hard-line “us” vs. “them” attitudes are exhibited not only in the political realm. They exist in our working lives as well, even in our own homey little discipline of quality. One would think that an attitude of collegiality would take precedence, given how few of us remain in the profession, but no... tribalism and silo mentalities reign here, too.

Just look at the fights we pick, and the passionate ways in which we disagree:
Risk management and ISO 9001. Some would say that the concept of risk has always been inherent in the standard. Others argue that quality and risk are two separate disciplines that should not be mingled. There’s no debating that risk-based thinking is now embedded in ISO 9001:2015. How exactly auditors will audit to that requirement, however, is still an open question.
Six Sigma. There are industry professionals, both in quality and top management, who have transformed entire organizations through the use of Six Sigma. There are many more who have made their living as consultants and trainers of the methodology. And then there are those who feel passionately that Six Sigma is a dead end, at best, or a complete scam, at worst, because the statistical underpinnings just don’t make sense.
To transform or not to transform? Speaking of statistical arguments, the debate over whether or not to transform (i.e., normalize) data prior to analysis has gone on for decades. Part of the issue here (for some) is the ever-expanding reliance on statistical software that may automatically normalize data. But do users of these tools completely understand that this is even happening? Do they know what they’re missing? Or is that overcomplicating the issue? The disagreement rages on.

These and many other points raise important issues, and I don’t mean to minimize them by reducing them to mere paragraphs. In truth, those on both sides of these debates have excellent arguments in support of their positions, and as a journalist more than a practitioner, I would not even attempt to weigh their relative merits. That’s not my point anyway. I’m less interested in who’s right or wrong, and more interested in how we can find middle ground and agree... even if we end up agreeing to disagree.

It’s certainly not hard to fall into an “us” camp and find ourselves pushing others into one labeled “them.” But my feeling is that “us” and “them” carry no weight against the power of “we.” We, as one species, with limited vision and resources, can only accomplish great works by moving in one general direction and discovering solutions that work best for the greatest number of people. Will we all be thrilled with all decisions made all the time? Of course not, but the drive to come together rather than pull apart represents the best of the human condition. In the face of fear—and, sadly, there is a lot of fear in the world right now—this is harder to do and yet all the more important.

Personally, I have faith in “we” and believe that this ethos will carry us forward. “We” starts with “me,” however, so during this holiday season, I am going to consider the little things I can do to find common ground with my co-workers, my family, and my friends. That doesn’t mean I’m going to surrender my beliefs; our most cherished freedom is the right to hold those and act accordingly, as long as those beliefs don’t hurt anyone else. But I will listen more, and keep an open mind, and be respectful of alternate opinions. Respect given usually leads to respect received, and as always, the best way to be heard is first to hear.

That’s my goal for the holidays and my chief resolution for 2016. How about you? Let’s join together and make “we” a reality for our nation and the world.


About The Author

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Mike Richman



"We has met the enemy and he is us!"