In order for the civil service system to change, American citizens need to take responsibility. They need to understand, identify and support efforts to successfully reduce variation. This can be achieved by making sure their elected representatives avoid the two types of mistakes—treating a common cause as a special cause and vice versa—when considering a change, which will increase the likelihood that the change will result in improvement. Holding elected officials accountable has been the implied responsibility of citizens. It’s an inherent of the part of the American system of government.
One of the barriers that has prevented broader awareness and understanding of the variation paradigm has been its definitions. Typically, variation is vaguely defined within a statistical framework. A broader description that provides context for Walter Shewhart’s contributions includes the following:
- In simple yet profound terms, variation represents the difference between an ideal and an actual situation.
- An ideal represents a standard of perfection—the highest standard of excellence that is uniquely defined by stakeholders, including direct customers, internal customers, suppliers, society and shareholders. Excellence is synonymous with quality, and excellent quality results from doing the right things, in the right way. The fact that we can strive for an ideal but never achieve it means that stakeholders always experience some variation from the perfect situations they envision. This, however, also makes improvement and progress possible. Reducing the variation stakeholders experience is the key to quality and continuous improvement.
Shewhart’s contributions in providing methods for managing variability is the “What’s new?” in helping to determine when change results in improvement. W. Edwards Deming’s books, Out of the Crisis and The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, provide additional insight on managing variability.
A New Way of Thinking
Given the variation paradigm, a problem is never solved because variation from an ideal is never eliminated. A problem represents an unacceptable degree of variation, and a solved problem represents an acceptable degree of variation. Variation either gets better or it gets worse, which makes continuous improvement a moral imperative. Reducing variation is an inherent part of any problem-solving process.
Problem-solving processes include four phases: Problem recognition, decision making, problem resolution and follow-through. Here is what typically occurs in each phase:
- Problem recognition. Compare the ideal situation to the actual situation to determine if the variation is acceptable or unacceptable.
- Decision making. If the variation is acceptable, you can continue to accept the risks and opportunity costs associated with accepting the status quo or you can try to minimize the resources needed to maintain the respective system or process.
- If the variation is unacceptable, you can choose an evolutionary (incremental) and/or a revolutionary (redesign or reengineer) alternative. Identify how you and other stakeholders will know that the change will result in improvement. Changing to a stable system that consists of only common cause variation requires a permanent and fundamental change. A problem due to a special cause may require little or no action.
- Problem resolution. Implement the change. Determine if the variation was reduced.
- Follow-through. Repeat the cycle until you achieve an acceptable degree of variation.
The Quality Progress magazine article “Continuous Improvement of the Basketball Free-Throw Line” illustrates the simplicity in applying the variation paradigm. (This article is open to the public.) Note that I have never had anyone come close to correctly identifying an ideal shot (think missile guidance technology).
The American System of Government
“I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.”
– Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 85
The aim of the design of the American system of government is to reduce variation. Typically, people can agree on facts and ideals and can find common cause variation that they can work together to reduce. People will disagree over beliefs, opinions and desired courses of action, which leads to the need for dialogue and compromise.
Here’s a historical example of how a group of people agreed that the variation between the ideal and actual situation wasn’t acceptable and how they worked together to reduce it:
Problem recognition. During the time of the American Revolution, John Adams estimated that only one-third of the American people were in favor of the revolution, a third was opposed and the other third had mixed feelings that shifted from patriot to loyalist, depending on the circumstances at the time.
The Founding Fathers agreed on the fact that English rule was unacceptable, despite disagreeing on issues such as slavery, state versus federal rights and voter rights. They also agreed on the ideals that all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights, including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Decision making. The Founding Fathers decided to make a revolutionary change by declaring independence from England. Indicators for measuring progress toward the agreed-on ideals include:
- Life expectancy, crime rates and adequacy of health care (Life)
- Tax rates, quality of federal regulation, literacy rates, debt as a percent of gross domestic product and voter turnout (Liberty)
- Employment rates, education levels and average income (Happiness)
Problem resolution. Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and agreed to the Articles of Confederation in 1777, ratifying them in 1781. The Founders also worked to develop and sustain support for the American Revolutionary War.
Follow-through. To achieve the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Founders designed a system of government derived from the study of human nature, political history and philosophy that would provide the needed checks and balances on individual and group power. They accepted that the system, like mankind, would always be imperfect, but they also acknowledged that the system could be continually improved through laws and amendments to the Constitution of the United States.
The Constitution was approved in 1787 “in Order to form a more perfect Union,” and was followed by the ratification of the Bill of Rights (first 10 amendments to the Constitution) in 1791. The last amendment—Amendment 27 – Limiting Changes to Congressional Pay—was ratified in 1992.
The Federalist Papers were published from October 1787 through August 1788 to help explain the design of the Constitution and to support ratification by the 13 states. The Federalist Papers were considered by Thomas Jefferson as “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” It is interesting to speculate whether the Founders would have supported an amendment to the Constitution to include a Quality Mana
gement System (QMS). A QMS would identify the methods to be used for assessing the capability and performance of the system in making progress toward the ideals.
The Declaration of Independence and Constitution introduced the concept that citizens are responsible for developing, sustaining and improving the new system. In support of the Declaration, the Founders pledged their lives: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
An American Evolution
A needed improvement to the design of the American system of government is the inclusion of a standard methodology for assessing the quality of service provided by the government. This would include methods for managing variability and providing feedback on progress toward achieving the American ideals. This may help answer the questions: “Are we any better off now that we were 235, 100, 50, 10 or 4 years ago?” and “As a country, are we getting better?”
Media (e.g., 24×7 cable shows) and social media (e.g., Twitter) may help provide the objectivity needed to align facts and truth with perceptions and expectations. W. Edwards Deming’s estimate that 95% of change results in no improvement because of the failure to understand the common and special causes of variation is conservative when it comes to the accuracy of news media related headlines.
In the Quality Progress magazine article “A Transformation To Quality Government,” I identified a 10-step approach that could be applied in supporting the types of changes that lead to improvement. The number of alternatives for achieving rapid and significant improvement is unlimited. For example, as I reinforced in the other articles, reducing variation through the application of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence represents a proven method for making the needed changes not only within the civil service system but also within the country. In addition to the nonprofit sector, the Baldrige Criteria support application in other sectors, including business, education, and health care.
I don’t underestimate the challenge and barriers for implementing the systemic changes required for incorporating the concepts, methods and practices required for managing variability. As I mentioned in the second article in this series, Deming estimated in 1986 that it would be another 50 years (2036) before awareness of the variation paradigm was more common. Given the challenges facing our country, now may be a good time to embrace new perspectives and approaches for resolving recurring problems. Doing so will unleash the enormous skills, talent and potential of the American people. The result will be a better quality of life for us all.
Author’s note: I received numerous comments to the articles in this series. In the next article, I will address these comments along with identifying the better strategies that are used to delay and support application of the variation paradigm.
Perspectives and opinions presented are solely those of the author.