Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On the Destruction Express

I'm offering something today that I've had lying around for a little while; it's to eventually appear somewhere in my new book about The Open Source Society. But first, your daily dose of Rev. William Sloane Coffin:

It's not them and us: it's just us. And all of us are careening toward nuclear war. In World War II, six million Jews were herded into boxcars, stripped, shot or gassed, and incinerated in ovens all over Eastern Europe. But on the trains the great majority never guessed their destiny. We're on such a train to an even greater incineration and haven't the eyes to perceive it.

The Ass in the Lion's Skin

AN ASS, having put on the Lion's skin, roamed about in the forest and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met in his wanderings. At last coming upon a Fox, he tried to frighten him also, but the Fox no sooner heard the sound of his voice than he exclaimed, "I might possibly have been frightened myself, if I had not heard your bray."

Aesop's story of the Ass in the Lion's Skin has something to teach us about how quality is perceived and treated in the corporate culture. Most companies like wearing the skin of quality, but few choose to pursue its substance.

Quality is given the same kind of lip service in corporate America that it receives from advertisers of consumer goods. "Quality is job one," rang the old Ford ad. "The quality goes in...before the name goes on," Zenith assured us in its ads for consumer TVs.

Curiously, though, you would be hard-pressed to find many mentions of the word "quality" in most modern advertising. As in the corporate realm, the image of quality is far more important than its substance. We like to talk about quality, but rarely is it pursued, let alone practiced. Our culture much prefers quantity. How much you have is our benchmark for success, more than the intrinsic value of what you are.

Yet there's even more to the problem than that. For to be defined by one's possessions is misfortune enough; to be measured according to their mere quantity, however, is disaster. Yet we have heard our own President refer proudly to his supporters as "the haves and the have-mores," who he fondly calls his "base." This attitude from the putative leader of the free world represents a painfully regressive step in human evolution.

Still, this is hardly a problem to be blamed on one individual or even a single institution. The underlying attitude is pervasive in our culture, and thus, it can only be successfully addressed at the individual level. You cannot legislate a society to transform its attitudes toward excess; institutional compulsion is more likely to compound the problem than ameliorate it: the history of prohibition in a nutshell.

This being the case, what we need is a broad picture of the problem with quality in our culture, so that we can as individuals discover its traces within ourselves, within our lives. This process in itself frequently points the way toward a transformational solution that will guide the culture. This is, I think, the most natural process: the changes made uniquely within each person lead the society forward.

In our advertising, we are far more likely to find the words "get more" than any term that describes "quality." In America, More is better; Bigger is better. In our current era, we've taken the matter well beyond the point of balance: we speak of "extreme" in everything from sports to drain openers; "ultra-" is one of the most-used prefixes in advertising; and "more" is virtually ubiquitous. We have wrapped ourselves in a cult of More; defined ourselves by Excess. Today, it seems there is no longer any such thing as too much of a good thing. In fact, we frequently don't even bother to ask how "good" the thing may actually be, so long as there is lots of it.

When we conflate excess with success (they sure sound alike, don't they?), then quality becomes an accident, a bonus if present, though more likely a necessary sacrifice to quantity. This is true of consumer goods: why not "get more" by snatching up 3 Wal-Mart personal computers for the same price as you'd pay for one Mac or higher-end PC? If a 30-inch TV screen looks great, then 60-inches must twice as great.

As you might expect, the breath of this cult has also entered the corporate realm. In my own professional arena, Information Technology (IT), there is a domain known as QA (Quality Assurance), which is theoretically responsible for applying thorough, controlled testing of software developed or purchased and customized by the company. In practice, however, QA is usually under-resourced, generally ignored until the last possible moment of a software project, and is allowed laughably brief amounts of time to do its work. This is such a universal state of affairs in corporate America that you can fairly predict the course a conversation with a QA Manager might take, well ahead of time.

For in software development and in consumer products, quality is tested and verified mainly by the end-user. So if you buy a product and find that it doesn't work or is so loaded with bugs or deficiencies as to be essentially useless, welcome to QA in the modern age. This is a model that most corporations adhere to, and is based largely on the unquestionable success of the Microsoft corporation in selling buggy, insecure, hair-pullingly dysfunctional software whose myriad defects are revealed only by the general public that pays a very high price for the stuff.

So, corporate America, when it comes to quality, is the ass that wears the lion's skin: it pays regular lip-service to quality, and will cloak itself in a quality-referenced Mission Statement or advertising slogan. But when it comes to actual practice, your average corporation is very much still an ass. If you listen closely, you can hear the braying before you put your money down.

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