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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Quality as a survivor meme


Quality as a survivor meme

In 1976 Richard Dawkins, a genetics biologist and an ultra-believer in Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection proposed an ethereal construct, the meme. 

According to geneticists pieces of DNA produce genetic units (genes) that produce proteins that lead to characteristics that allow organisms to either succeed and prosper, or fall behind and fail.  Genes can be passed from organism to organisms or can mutate. Sometimes genes interact with other genes like switches, turning each other on or off.  Darwinists go one strp further; successful genetic codes are the ones that “program” characteristics in a person, or animal, or plant that increase their likelihood to survive or die off (survival of the fittest).  Ultra-Darwinists believe that a gene’s primary goal of survival defines the selfish gene trait.

 Memes are ideas that have all the functional (but not the physical) characteristics of genes.  Successful memes pass from person to person, sometimes mutating, sometimes remaining stable.  Selfish memes move through the greatest number of individuals thus ensuring their survival.  Less fit memes ultimately lose in the competition of ideas and fade away.  The notion that the world is round and moves around the sun is an example of a survivor meme.  That the world is flat is an unfit meme. 

I think we can all agree that the world and existence is more complicated than as described, but it does create enough of a foundation that allows for some discussion:  we, who are interested in the notion that Quality is a positive characteristic, can and should ask: are we colonized with a meme that is ultimately healthy and fit to survive, or are we infected with a meme with little chance of long term success?

The ASQ writes that the history of Quality can be traced to guilds in England in the 13th century.  Others [ see: http://www.washington.edu/admin/finmgmt/qi/directions/oct02/headlines4.htm ] date it much further back (10,000 BC).   The point being that this Quality idea, this Quality meme, has been around for a long time, and has seemed to have spread pretty effectively. 

Over the years this Quality meme has evolved in part from natural evolution (Taylorism, Shewhart, Deming, Lean, Six Sigma,), in part from environmental pressures (Industrial Revolution, Public demand for Quality) , in part from competition (Agile project management, Risk Management). And the path for the Quality Meme has not always been smooth. 

There have been competing memes, some with the power to modify meme expression (turn down) Quality expression and some that will completely turn off Quality development, In business and industry, the quarter-by-quarter analysis meme which opts for short term results tends to suppress Quality and any other activity that takes time to develop.  In single payer health care the all too regular meme that opts for all too regular across-the-board cutbacks is a perpetual attack on Quality monitoring costs.  And the all too familiar and pervasive mantra “doing-better-with-less” approach has had a similar deleterious impact.

Of more concern is the absentee meme “DKDC or Don’t know – Don’t care” which opts for doing work on the fast and cheap and with a fast exit approach. 
But the worst of all is the “Quality is futile, Quality is bad” meme.  In the last while we have seen three expressions; the least worst is the meme that points to analysis of how many of the top 50 industries did not bother with Quality processes such as Six Sigma or ISO9001:2008 and were still successful.

The more toxic expression is the one that talks about how Quality processes were introduced but the ranking of the company went down. This is an inane idea based on some view that the world we live in is strictly dichotomous: black versus white, right versus wrong.  The idea assumes that the ONLY variable that changed was the introduction of Six Sigma, as if the economic downturn never occurred, or customer preferences changed (think Nokia, or RIM or Apple).

The most vile expression of Quality-is-futile, is that Quality standards such as ISO9001 are failed documents because most organizations do not or can not maintain their certification, either due to the ineptness of Quality or because the assessment bodies are only in it for the money, and therefore they should all be avoided.  Stunningly this idea actually comes out of the mouths of committees within ISO and other tragically jealous competitors.

So where does all this go.?  Memes, like genes, come and go.  Some, like the genes responsible for making dinosaurs thrive until they become overwhelmed by competition or circumstance and die.  Memes of the flat-earth category fall into that category. 
So far the Quality meme has shown considerable staying power, slowly evolving, shifting, but at their core, remaining true to principle.  But modern anti-Quality memes are certainly around. 

So will Quality continue as a long term survivor that integrates itself through all societies?  I would like to think so. 

Only time will tell. 

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