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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

What Will Scottish Independence Mean for Quality?

A major quality failure in the 17th century may offer some clues

Published: Monday, September 8, 2014 - 08:44

If your preferred media outlet has yet to cover the current topic of conversation about Scottish independence, the following may be, well, news to you. On Sept. 18, 2014, the people living in Scotland will be given the opportunity to vote to become, once again, an independent and sovereign country, separating its ties with the government of the United Kingdom.

As a national of the United Kingdom, who was born, raised, and for the most part educated in Scotland, not to mention a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Part Two, I won’t get to vote. Why? Because living in the United States precludes me from participating. However, as the token Scotsman in the office, I’m regularly posed with questions on the topic and often asked which way I’m going to vote.

Seeking independence isn’t really new to Scotland; in fact, 2014 marks the 700-year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, where Robert the Bruce, having received a motivational speech from a spider in a cave, defeated King Edward II with a much smaller team than England’s vastly more powerful army. Not so long after, at least in historical terms, an invading English army again took control of Scotland.

Fortunately for this upcoming bid for independence, the process will unfold in a much more peaceful and diplomatic manner. 

For centuries, although ruled through a regal connection, Scotland acted as an independent country. To this day, it prints its own money (although it’s still the British pound) and has a different legal system compared to that of the rest of the United Kingdom. Only during the last three centuries has Scotland really been under the political control of the United Kingdom, and that came about, in my opinion, as a result of a major quality failure.

The Darien Scheme

During the 17th century, imperialism was the political fashion of the day. As western European countries developed new and wonderful seafaring technologies to cross vast expanses of water in short periods of time, a land-grab free-for-all got underway in the Americas, Africa, Middle East, and Asia.

A successful Scottish entrepreneur by the name of William Paterson realized that the trade between the Americas and Europe would produce vast fortunes. He planned to create a shortcut and thereby establish a trade route between the Pacific and Atlantic that would avoid the risks of navigation around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. To accomplish this, he picked a point on the map that appeared to be a good location to support this venture, and he furthermore decided that it would become a new settlement for like-minded Scottish people. This place, a skinny strip of land separating the great oceans of the Atlantic and Pacific, was called Darien. On today’s maps it is known as Panama.

How was the scheme a quality failure?

To set up the Darien Scheme, Paterson borrowed half a million pounds from the Scottish people and Scottish banks, with the promise of huge long-term returns. By 2014 standards half a million doesn’t sound like much; however, back in the late 1600s, that sum was equal to approximately £8.3 billion in today’s currency.

Paterson’s knowledge of Darien was based almost exclusively on reports and sightings by sailors and pirates. Not having set foot in the place, he was not fully aware that at the time the Spanish had claimed the area as their own. Spain was in fact somewhat protective about this claim and could even be characterized as a little hostile to other invaders. Nevertheless, on the strength of a very persuasive pamphlet, boatloads of Scots set out from Edinburgh (pronounced EDD-inn-bbrrruhh), unaware that they would soon receive a bit of a “doing” from Darien’s current landlords.

Other problems soon manifested themselves. The fashion of the day was to wear wigs and heavy uniforms suitable for a Scottish summer, although from what I understand these articles of clothing aren’t particularly conducive to comfort in tropical climates. In addition, the emigrating Scots, fearing to drink the local water and contract a tropical disease, were advised to drink alcoholic beverages because they were thought to be “safer.”

Therefore, what with fighting Spaniards, suffering from heat exhaustion, being permanently drunk, and seeing their friends fall ill (somehow I feel I have just described a typical modern Scottish vacation), no trade route was established by Scottish endeavors. After seeing a third of their countrymen die of a tropical disease or malnutrition, the remaining few packed up and attempted the risky journey back home. One boat out of 16 made it back to Edinburgh.

The Darien Scheme went bankrupt, an economic disaster large enough to subsequently bankrupt Scotland. Lying in financial ruins, the Scottish government was dissolved, and if Robert Burns was right, in 1707 Scotland was absorbed into the government of the United Kingdom following a little financial persuasion to key political influencers. Ironically, Paterson himself went on to help establish the Bank of England.

And that’s how the Darien Scheme, with its lack of planning, FMEA, CAPA, and risk management, was a major quality failure. The rest, as the saying goes, is now history.

Independence in 2014?

Fast forward to 2014. Now we are approaching another way point along the path of Scotland’s history, and a new and very direct question will be posed to Scottish voters: Should Scotland be an independent country? Rather than a pamphlet such as the one used by Paterson, the people of Scotland have been given a 670-page document setting out the vision of what a new and independent Scotland would look like.

I’m not a big fan of politicians. I see many as self-serving for most of their careers while needed changes for improvement in society are rarely delivered. However, I will concede that my jaded opinion could be based on “big government” or the results of ineffective politics. Having seen firsthand the imbalance in UK representation for Scotland’s interests, I should perhaps be open to the idea that improvements could happen with a new way of doing things. After all, this is how I make quality improvements in my own line of work.

I was interested to see how the manifesto would treat “quality” in its vision for the new Scotland. I was surprised to find 86 references to the term. There were phrases such as “guaranteeing the quality of service,” “deliver a higher quality,” “focusing on sustainable quality,” and “highest quality provision” carefully inserted throughout the document. The references are mainly about setting out changes to provide “high quality” without discussing in any detail how this will be achieved. But I ask myself: Should this manifesto lay out the path to achieving quality? I guess this is an executive-level “vision” document, and I shouldn’t expect to see the actual route to quality described.

Like any senior management vision, this one for Scotland will have to be supported by great people to deliver on these promises. It certainly looks as if there will be a place for quality professionals in an independent Scotland, whether improving on current quality systems or collaborating to create something as momentous as a new country. This represents a wonderful opportunity for our profession, and an even better one for our own specialist subject matter, brought into the light of new political opportunities.

However, this all depends on the majority of Scottish people voting “yes” in a few days. What happens to quality if the vote goes against independence? Should the politicians stop trying to improve the quality of governmental service? Can there still be a place for quality professionals?

Whatever the outcome, quality will still need attention. If a country’s people want improvement, things will need to change, and I wouldn’t wish for the country of my birth to follow the same route to political change as that witnessed in the Middle East during the last few years.

This topic reminds me of one of my favorite quality guru quotes: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not compulsory.” It got me thinking that nearly 35 years have passed since a TV documentary asked the question, “If Japan can, why can’t we?” The program’s U.S. producers were trying to understand why there was such a gap between Japan’s stellar economic performance compared to that of the United States at the time. They concluded that Japan’s performance was based on the vision and ideas of an American, anonymous up until that moment, but today certainly recognized around the world. That American was W. Edwards Deming, who was responsible for that quote as well as many of today’s most important quality concepts and breakthroughs.

But vision and ideas themselves don’t make changes. Deming also said that “a thermometer measuring the temperature in the room at 110° F doesn’t make the room better.” To make improvements will take action. Perhaps Scotland will learn from that lesson, assuming it frees itself from the bonds of the United Kingdom. Perhaps a new, open, and transparent Scottish government will work for its people, with a purely humanitarian goal of making improvements for the betterment of everyone in the country.

However, if Scotland wishes to avoid another Darien-type failure, then glossy pamphlets and 670-page grand visions will not be enough. The hard work and actions of brilliant people are what will ensure success. It fills me with passion and pride to think that Scotland is on the brink of such potential and monumental change to direct its own future, one that accommodates quality and addresses the inequalities that hold its society back. That will be a change for the better.

I love Scotland. Its beauty is in its people, and the culture is hardwired for learning and working for betterment. It’s a magical place. Really, it’s literally magical, as in Harry Potter wizard magical. After all, Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn, and that alone is pure magic. (There could be a correlation between the invention of whiskey and sightings of unicorns, but this is pure speculation on my part.)

So what do I do? I’m not a participant in a potentially historic event for a small country at the top of an island floating in the Atlantic. All I can do is wait out the result as an observer in a land far away from Scotland. I’m an ambitious person, and I place my ambitions on the people and world around me. I’ve been fortunate to deliver change, some of it great and far-reaching. But with a stroke of a pen on a ballot, my Scottish brothers and sisters in quality can potentially effect greater change for improvement than I could possibly hope to achieve. If Scotland becomes an independent country, it must reach out to the quality community for assistance.


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.



Today the people of Scotland will answer a question posed to them. As the great Nelson Mandela said "make a decision on your hopes, not your fears" I am hoping for a full scale freeing of all imprisoned unicorns and a vast improvement of all things Quality today.

1815 - 2015

200 years from Wien's Congress and Europe's still there; no wonder the Scots want Scotland and not Great Britain. In Lombardy (Italy) we want to get rid of Rome, we were Barbarians not Latins; italian language is an artificial language, far away from the language we spoke 200 years ago. Speaking of quality, we - up in the north - could never think to compare the quality of our goods to what's made in the south, and it's always been so, since the XI century or so. I do like Scots, too, I like England's Midlands northward on; just the same as I like Wales. The Celts were here where I was born and where I live, I can't ignore it. 

I would vote "yes" if I could.

Paul - this is the best article I have read on the topic, and I have read a lot of them. Jane Fraser

670 pages?

And they still don't say how they plan on doing this? Must have been written by the lawyers. Good article. I enjoyed the bit about the motivational speech by the spider.