Education Opinion

The Zen of Quality

By Randy Johnson — November 22, 2000 6 min read
Blanket acceptance of the “quality process” as a philosophy replaces true visionary leadership, and dooms a school, district, or state to academic mediocrity.

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The logic of using Malcolm Baldrige-based “quality” training for improving education systems (actually W. Edwards Demings-based quality training, but Mr. Baldrige was the U.S. secretary of commerce who championed the principles in the United States) seems indisputable. The problem-solving method of “pdsa” (Plan, Do, Study, Act) is not only logical, natural, and efficient, it’s time- tested. Just ask anyone who took high school biology about the scientific method. Even the uncomfortable notion that continual change is a necessary component of quality (or worse, is the very definition of quality) is somehow palatable when seasoned with the greater good of having usable and accountable systems in place.

It would seem, in fact, that outside a textbook on chaos theory, there are no valid arguments against incorporating such a simple, powerful managerial and operational philosophy. But, well, there it is: the tendency to describe (or “buy in to”) the quality process as a philosophy, when it most certainly is not. The process is a powerful tool, an important technique, a usable method, but it’s not a philosophy and not the savior of floundering educational systems. Indeed, the blanket acceptance of the quality process as a philosophy replaces true visionary leadership and dooms a class, school, district, or state to mediocrity.

Do with this analogy what you will, but the quality process can and will keep an educational ship in tip-top shape, floating confidently in a turbulent sea of change. It does this by changing the ship to meet the changing sea. But it won’t take the ship anywhere: The process is made just to keep the ship floating.

To support this argument, I will suggest the seemingly outlandish notion that there are comparisons to be made between the currently popular Baldrige-based “quality process” and Zen Buddhism. I will also propose that it is this connection that made Deming’s quality system so successful with the Japanese. I will make the further social blunder of suggesting that temporary-goal-attainment is incongruent with Western ways and that, taken out of context—meaning as a philosophy, and not as a technique—the quality process can actually stagnate a system.

My understanding of Zen is that it is actually a hybrid of Taoism and Buddhism and is considered not a religion but a “way to liberation.” Zen is intended to be a method by which individuals can free themselves from convention and embrace spontaneity and clear thought without discrediting any belief system. This is an important point to grasp, because Zen, like much of Eastern philosophy, believes that the transitory nature of life is a sign of its true divinity and that recognizing this fluidity of existence is, in a sense, to recognize God and perfection (quality).

In effect, Zen is a process for attaining quality, and quality is a transitory state, defined by the moment.

Zen believes that the transitory nature of life is a sign of its true divinity; recognizing this fluidity of existence is, in a sense, to recognize God and perfection (quality).

W. Edwards Deming instituted a Zen-like (my inference) system for attaining quality within Japan’s postwar industrial machine. He taught the Japanese the value of teamwork and the burden of individual units to continually adapt, change, and improve to produce quality outcomes that support the greater system. He taught that a system should be constantly changing (improving) in order to be its best at any given moment, never the same as it was before.

Because it was Zen-like, this idea was easily and readily embraced by the Japanese culture. The quality movement sweeping U.S. educational systems is an adaptation of Deming’s business principles intended for attaining quality within education. And even in adaptation, it’s still a Zen-like process touting a way to liberation through quality.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the point of view), this country, as multicultural as it is, remains more Baptist than Zen, more Manifest Destiny than spontaneously happy in the present, more win the war than win the moment.

The reason the so-called quality movement tends to strike a dull chord with many educators is that it’s an overstatement of purpose, like looking at the proverbial “emperor’s new clothes.” Problem-solving and using data to make decisions represent an extremely common-sense process. The concept is simple and taught in college. But to suddenly tout such simplicity as the very meaning of our professional lives is ludicrous. The folly of it, of course, only becomes apparent after we realize the elaborate simplicity of the whole affair.

Perhaps interpretation is the real problem I’ve perceived with the quality movement. The principles are solid and common-sense, and there’s hardly an educator alive who doesn’t believe education should be more accountable and data-driven. The problem is interpreting (after being told, of course) that all of one’s professional endeavors must center on constantly changing methods and measures until an acceptable answer (outcome) is found. To the Western mind, this is quite hopeless, since we tend to view impermanence, or fluidity, as fickle and subjective. Teachers hate, for example, acquiring a low-achieving, low-scoring student with a grade record from his previous teacher that says: “Bob was brilliant in my class. All of his papers are just covered with little blue stars!”

Systems can and do fall into such a continuum of change that they lose focus, their outcomes become temporary, and, in the long run, they end up with nothing more to say for themselves than “I’m OK, you’re OK.” I assert that there’s a real danger of education devaluing itself as a profession when it adopts the business principle of “give the customers what they want.”

This country remains more Baptist than Zen, more Manifest Destiny than spontaneously happy in the present, more win the war than win the moment.

Unlike business, students are not selectively buying a product; they’re receiving a service, the quality of which is largely dependent on their individual efforts.

Oh, we educators get the quality idea all right. But we’re just not hard-wired to accept quality as temporary or transitory. We’re built to work toward a single large goal with a Platonic ideal firmly rooted in our minds. We have district mission statements that say we’re going to create lifelong learners, productive citizens, and not individuals who are merely good readers on a given day.

The process of improvement by attaining temporary goals (albeit goals that are often technically part of even greater goals) somehow just doesn’t work for American educators as a philosophy. Rarely do we respond to the interview question of “What’s your philosophy of education?” with “I believe in reaching short-term goals, regardless of methods or measures. I believe students inherently possess all the knowledge ever gained by civilization and that my job is to make them comfortable while I trick the knowledge out of them and provide measures that prove my results.”

C’mon, quality, in and of itself, is a noun in the English language, begrudgingly an adjective, and never a verb.

Randy Johnson is a high school assistant principal in Portales, N.M.

A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as The Zen of Quality