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Monday, November 29, 2010

Being killed by perfection

I recently talked to one of my cousins, who is a retired engineer. He was interested in what the world of higher education is like these days, and, as a part of our conversation, I talked to him about assessment. When I explained the basic principles to him, his response was, "Ah, TQM."

TQM, for those who don't know, stands for Total Quality Management. My understanding of the history may be faulty, but this was one of those ideas that came into American industry from Japan when we were falling behind them in terms of quality. The idea isn't new, of course. The general idea of set a goal, take an action, and measure how far the outcome is from the goal is as old as civilization. I suppose the novelty of the notion lies in the use of modern analytic tools and institutionalizing it to such a large degree.

My cousin said the process had run afoul in his company when it was transmuted by the slogan "Perfect the first time."

There is no such thing as perfection, so arriving at it the first time is nonsense. And, of course, this is not what a culture of continual improvement about. I don't even like the phrase "continual improvement" as it doesn't seem to allow even for normal statistical variation. The idea is to organize our activities and create structures so that improvement is a natural outcome of the process. We need to recognize that we can improve and to institute processes so this will, over the course of time, happen.

Part of this process might include setting up a "perfect" ideal of what our desired outcomes would be. But, I believe it was Voltaire who said, the perfect is not the enemy of the good. We can be good, but we can always strive to be better. Using the tools of assessment is a natural part of this process.

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