Quality Requires System Thinking

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Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.
–John F. Kennedy

Change sets before us on all boundaries. Communication, computing and consumption are advancing at a pace never seen before. Economics and climate change demands the change we see.  There will be no part of our lives that will not be affected. We all know the famous Einstein saying, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” These words can guide us as we move into the future. We all know our credo, “A house is a system.” That must be the very same thinking we apply as we approach quality.

Just as a house is a system, so is quality. System refers to a whole that derives its characteristic from the interactions of its essential parts. A system is not the sum of its parts. Quality is a whole, not parts that can be taken separately. Improving a part does not always improve a whole and often can harm the whole. We know improving the R-value of a home by insulating the attic can harm the whole if air sealing is not a part of insulating. Improving the air tightness of a home can harm the whole unless combustion safety and ventilation are a part of air sealing. We must remember that improving the interactions is essential to improving the whole.

A system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts. We are a system and if we remove a part from our body the part does not continue to operate as it did before removal. No part of the human body is human; only the whole is. Your hands are important but not essential. Your hands can’t pick up anything only you can. Your eyes can’t see, only you can. Each is important but not essential. Identifying the essential parts and ensuring their healthy interactions is very important. A system derives its characteristics (good or bad) from the interactions of its essential parts.

A car’s purpose is transportation. The motor by itself cannot fulfill the purpose, only the whole car can. As important as it is, it is dependent upon the frame, tires, fuel system, etc. in order to fulfill the purpose. If you remove the motor from your car two thing follow; the motor no longer functions as designed and the same is true for the car. No part of the car is a car; only the whole is. This is also true with quality. It cannot be broken into parts and result in its purpose mentioned in the side bar above.

A system (quality) is a whole that cannot be understood by analysis (taking something apart in hopes of understanding the whole). Synthesis, (putting things together) is the key to system thinking. The two are like two sides of a coin. Both can be considered separately but they cannot be separated. System thinking combines analysis and synthesis to form a new way of thinking. In analytical thinking quality is treated as a whole to be taken apart, where with system thinking quality is treated as a part of a containing whole. Analysis reduces the focus where system examination expands focus.

Analysis brings knowledge and describes where system thinking results in understanding and explains.     

Quality is a whole that derives its behavior (good or bad) from the interactions of its essential parts and none of those parts taken separately. 

Essential parts:

  • Are parts that are able to affect the behavior of the whole
  • The way they affect the whole depends on what at least one other part is doing
  • A subsystem of the essential parts can affect the whole

Quality control, quality assurance and quality improvement make up the essential parts of the quality system. Each is linked by their interactions and each has many subsystems. They cannot be taken apart. Our pursuit of better quality by seeking to improve any part without consideration of the whole is destine for failure.   Consideration must be given to how the improvement will interact with the other essential parts and subsystems.

Quality as a whole must be built into the process of work not bolted on. Quality is not tools applied, it is a culture driven by management. TQM, IOS 9000, Six Sigma are great and important tools, but they are not a culture. Bolting on quality tools is improving the part in hopes of improving the whole. The whole can only be improved by improving the interactions of the essential parts. If a tool is used to accomplish this, then use it.

A quality driven company must have a management determined culture of prevention in order to accomplish defect free work. This is indispensable and key to a culture of system thinking and quality. Management focus must be on:

  • Quality Is: Conformance to agreed upon requirements and standards
  • The focus of Quality: Is processAll work is a process and process fails more than people. Therefore, creation of a blame free workplace is essential.
  • The Culture of Quality: Is a focus on prevention, not appraisal, providing a system for doing things right
  • The Standard of Quality: It is no acceptance for letting a mistake become a defect. This becomes the performance standard we work towards; defect free work (DFW)
  • The Measure of Quality: Should be the loyalty of employees, the loyalty of customers and financially, the cost of poor quality should be as low as possible

Our pursuit of quality will take a different kind of thinking than in the past.  One where we can combine analysis and synthesis and knowledge and understanding in order to construct a better place to work and products and services that are superior.

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About the Author:

Hailed as a visionary in energy efficiency and quality management, John has diagnosed and repaired more than 5,000 homes. He has participated in the weatherization of more than 10,000 homes. He is recognized for his contributions to many of the largest utility and building programs in the nation. Before joining Advanced Energy in 1996, John led a number of companies dedicated to preserving the state of Florida through quality building practices. Today, John is responsible for technical oversight and business development. Regarded as a pioneer in the world of energy efficiency, John trains builders and contractors throughout the United States and frequently gives keynote addresses at national conferences. John can be reached at johntooley@johntooleyllc.com

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