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Scott M. Paton

Fear Factor

Don’t let fear of change rule your world.


It’s an election year, and change is in the air. In fact, it’s all you hear these days from the politicians, pundits, and pollsters. U.S. citizens want change. We want a new leader with fresh ideas. I won’t step into the political minefield and endorse a candidate. Even if I did, there’s a good chance that he (or she) might not be in the running by the time you read this. And who wants to base a vote on the word of a curmudgeon, anyway?

It’s curious that we so desperately want change from our political leaders but are so resistant to change in our personal and professional lives. It’s OK to throw the bums out of Washington--just don’t expect me to do anything differently.

Change requires risk. When I cast my ballot for the next president, I am taking the risk that he or she might not perform as I expect. The risk is mitigated by the fact that I am only casting one vote out of hundreds of millions. But when I have to implement a new ISO standard or learn to use a new instrument or take a new job, the risk is much more personal.

One of my favorite web sites, Wikipedia .com, defines “risk” as, “The possibility of an event occurring that will have an impact on the achievement of objectives.”

Of course, risk creates fear. We don’t like change because we’re afraid that the change will be negative. What if that new standard creates more work than it’s worth? What if I can’t operate that new piece of equipment? What if Ron Paul actually gets elected?

Fear itself can be a good thing, despite W. Edwards Deming’s admonition to drive it out. Fear keeps us from doing stupid things. It’s a built-in mechanism that kept us from getting eaten by saber-toothed tigers and keeps us from telling our boss off.

Wikipedia defines “fear” as “an emotional response to tangible and realistic dangers.”

Fear can also be dangerous because it can be debilitating. Too often fear prevents us from making tough decisions. Should I quit my job? Should I take that internal auditing job? Should I tell the boss that his or her brilliant new idea will cause some serious quality problems?

It’s the resistance to change--the fear factor--that is limiting U.S. industry and U.S. workers. We’ve had it easy for so long that we’re terrified to change. Don’t ask us to work differently, to learn new skills, or to take on more responsibility.

China and India represent the flip side of the fear coin. They had so little for so long that they’re not afraid to change. To them, change represents opportunity.

As the presidential candidates debate, lecture, and accuse, we hear different perspectives on the fate of U.S. industry. John McCain tells us that certain segments of the U.S. manufacturing industry are dead and gone and that we need to move on. Mitt Romney tells us that we can bring those jobs back through innovation and hard work. John Edwards wants to force big business to protect jobs. I think Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are somewhere in between.

I tend to agree with McCain. We need to move on. We’re not ever going to see the levels of employment in manufacturing that we did 10 or 20 years ago, but I believe that we can replace those jobs with good-paying jobs in the service sector if we are willing to embrace change.

We’ve got to change our expectations of our educational system, the government, our employers, our health care system, our retirements, and more.

Why is all of this important to you? As a quality professional, you need to change, too. You’ve got to be willing to adapt your skills, your training, your education, and your work methods to survive. If you’ve spent your career working in manufacturing, you might want to think about updating your skills to work in the service sector. The good news is that a lot of quality principles are universal. A process can be described, analyzed, and improved, no matter the industry. Statistical analysis works on widgets as well as software. The key is the willingness to accept change and move forward.

Change--no matter how tough it may seem to be--usually works out in the end. Think back in your career and personal life. I guarantee that you’ll find examples of relationships and jobs that you were forced out of that you wouldn’t want to be involved in today.

I speak from experience. I gave up a secure paycheck to focus on running my own business, only to find out a few months later that my wife was pregnant with twins. It’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s been rewarding. It’s been good for me, my family, and for Quality Digest . My replacement, Mike Richman, has done an excellent job of steering the magazine through a changing and turbulent time in the publishing world.

So, while we may fear change--and fear can sometimes be a good thing--don’t let that fear rule your life. If you’re unwilling to change, I can almost guarantee you that there is someone else out there who isn’t and who would be happy to do your job.

What are your thoughts on change, fear, and the future of manufacturing? Post your thoughts online at www.qualitycurmudgeon.com .

About the author
Scott M. Paton is Quality Digest’s editor at large.