The Power of Definitions; what you measure matters

by | Nov 28, 2018 | Change

Often we hear that words have power, however the power is usually not in the words themselves, but in the definitions we give them.  Assuming this is true, then if we change the definitions, we change their power or can direct their power.  Sound silly?

After spending time unsuccessfully promoting his ideas, a man left America in the 80’s ending up in Japan, where his ideas transformed Toyota into the world’s largest car manufacturer.  The man of course is W.E. Deming, the father of Total Quality Management, and one of the key aspects of the theory that became known as “kaizen” or continuous improvement was changing the definition and metric used to define waste.

One of the key aspects of the definition of waste in manufacturing was almost always the amount of time the assembly line was not ‘on’ (the utilisation rate of the assembly line).  If the products produced at the end of the line had a small defect that was seen as acceptable waste because the line must run (and only the plant manager could turn the line off).  Deming and Toyota changed this by deeming defective products as unacceptable and empowering the workers on the line to stop the assembly line whenever they noticed something was not correct.  The end products had fewer defects, the quality of the products went up, and, I imagine, the morale of the assembly line workers increased.

I am stuck today by what we measure and how we define things.  I’m also regularly surprised how common it is assumed that everyone has the same definition of a term the person speaking it.  Reality points to another view.  We all define terms like quality, impact, effectiveness, efficiency, etc. slightly differently.  Think about it – McDonald’s definition of quality is quite different from a restaurant with 3 stars from the Michelin rating system.  When we define efficiency purely from a short term financial outlook, it looks a bit different than when we take the long view.

When we define effectiveness and efficiency only with financial metrics (whether work for a for-profit or not-for-profit organisation), then our systems, business processes, and investments are made to be able to measure that.  Our training programmes centre around that.

So when we are needing to change an organisation, it’s worth considering what the organisation is measuring and how they are defining terms; changing the definitions can help to change the organisation.

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