Understanding variation is the key to success in quality and business. – W. Edwards Deming
I wonder if I have stumbled on a trending genre – historical non-fiction exploring relatively recent technology.
On my reading list, for example, I have Power Play, The Hydrogen Economy and The Quest about the changing energy system, and a few others that talk about software businesses and electric vehicles.
The fast-paced narrative, investigating how these technologies are developing, make for interesting reading, but one has to question how much one can rely on such material – and whether the projections of what will happen matter or not.
Someone said that when you’re too close to events what you’re doing is journalism – reporting on what’s going on.
History requires you to take the long view – to filter out the significant from the insignificant – and that takes time.
The reason this distinction is important is because we face problems at the moment that are perhaps better solved by studying history than journalism.
Take carbon reductions, for example.
Most people agree that we need to move to a world where we put less CO2 into the atmosphere.
I learned recently that trying to do that is like trying to plug a leak in a boat – you also need to bale out the water or you’ll sink eventually as the water keeps trickling in.
We need to emit less carbon and also build the technology to suck it out of the atmosphere – but that’s a different point.
The important point is how you’re going to go about reducing your emissions.
Imagine you’re a big company and the way you operate now means you stick a whole load of carbon into the atmosphere.
You need to do things that bring that number down so what do you focus on?
There is a huge temptation to think you have to measure everything – get your information in real time and with all that information you’ll magically end up going in the right direction.
An equivalent thing here is the amount of effort going into AI research.
What everyone seems to be heading towards is making you the perfect digital assistant – an entity that can manage your schedule and order things for you – you just have to say the words.
However, do you really need a digital secretary?
Is that going to make you more productive – or is the fact that you need that kind of support a hint that your life is busier than it needs to be.
Tinkering at the surface with schedules and reminders is not the same as making deep changes at the core.
And that’s what’s needed to make a difference – whether you want to grow your business, cut emissions or lose weight – real change at the core.
And that change requires you to study history, not the ephemera and noise of right now – of social media and the 24 hour news cycle and whatever else that’s screaming for your attention.
Most of the time most things just behave the way they do because the system is the way it is.
The chart in the picture above is a control chart – a simple way of showing from the data whether something is normal or not.
If you’re inside the dashed lines that level of variation is just normal – it’s what you should expect.
Your weight should fluctuate between those lines.
Your company emissions should track between those lines.
Everything stays stable as long as the system is stable.
It’s when you go outside the lines that things start to matter.
If you go above the top line and stay there – then something has changed – and the same thing applies to the bottom line.
That’s when you should get out your ladder and go and investigate.
This simple model is the foundation of something called the mean-variance framework and it helps you distinguish between what’s important and what’s not important in almost any scenario you can think of.
And it’s not taught – or hardly taught anywhere.
If you’re interested the best book to get started is Douglas Wheeler’s Understanding Variation.
What history teaches us is that systems and technology come and go.
They’re not going to save us.
We’re going to have to do that ourselves – and that starts by learning how to think carefully about what we’re doing and if we’re doing what’s important or not.
Because some of these problems we’re facing are pretty big ones.