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The perceptions of contributing to a quality culture

Ryan Renard CQP MCQI examines how the way in which we perceive our environment contributes to a quality culture.

Quality within companies is defined by two key factors: the context of the business and the culture of the business’ environment. Both create unique worlds, perceived as ‘normal’ by those who actively participate in them.


The context of the business will be in continuous flux as it adjusts to the industry; the culture should be sustained, embedded and accepted within the business – provided, of course, that it is appropriate and positive.


Quality cannot be sustained without culture as this defines the consistency and conformity of action and achievement to the applied quality preference. This culture is one that is perceived through our representative systems (seeing, hearing, feeling). We see people act and behave in line with the cultures' requirements, hear congruent discussions, and experience how an organisation feels.


Perceptive capabilities


German biologist Jakob von Uexküll and Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas A Sebeok defined these perceptive environments as ‘umwelts’ – a self-centred world defined by our perceptive capabilities, despite our shared existences.


These umwelts are starker when used to compare our perceptive worlds with that of other creatures, such as dogs, who have rich experiences through smell, or ants, who navigate the world through unconscious chemical compliance with pheromones.


Though far more subtle, each organisation will define their own umwelt when a culture is created, dependent on the products or services the business provides, and the staff who work within the businesses. To them, if they were visiting another business, what they would find on arrival could often be perceived as unfamiliar and alien.


Auditors often experience these differences more keenly, as they visit a variety of organisations that have all developed unique and, to varying levels, compatible systems based around the same standards and regulations. In part, this may also help to define the phenomenon of the need to conduct audits on site to get a 'feel' of the business.


Humans are incredibly adept at spotting congruence – often expressed as authenticity. We have evolved complex systems to spot dangers in what is unfamiliar and unknown to us. We identify these errors and omissions through hypocritical acts, further defined through cultural idioms such as ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ in English, ‘Wasser predigen, aber Wein trinken’ (German – ‘preach water, but drink wine’) or ‘mekuso hanakuso o warau’ (Japanese – ‘eye mucus laughing at nose mucus’).


The importance of ‘umwelts’


Why are umwelts so important? The nature of our environments defines our actions, behaviours, beliefs and values. We build our worlds through our perceptive interactions creating generalisations (groups to 'standardise' knowledge), distortions (alignments to what we know) and deletions (removal of what is seen as unimportant, or what we are not aware of).


As quality professionals we use our communication and salesmanship to define quality within a business, foster the right behaviours, align cultures and train the people working within the organisation. How aware are you of your own world within the quality profession, or within your own personal life?


If the differences between ourselves as people can vary significantly, how much further can this difference of perspectives go when we take into account departments, divisions or other businesses?


Our similarity is that we all turn up to work to do the best we can with what we have available – the group to which we belong defines our goals and daily actions, shaping and forming our world. How long has it been since you worked in another department, even for a few hours, to understand that department's world?


Personal responsibility


"Seek first to understand, then be understood,” said Stephen Covey in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Quality has value when people take personal responsibility for it – as in any culture or environment. People's understanding of those cultures and environments are through their own perceptive filters, representation filters or umwelts – whichever term you prefer.


Collaboration is not only the future for businesses, it is also the future for quality. We cannot be the proverbial doctors who think they know best for their patients – the smartest and most skilled person in the world is useless if no-one listens to them.


In his book, The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a theory of personal conduct, Thomas S Szasz writes about Ignaz Semmelweis, a physician and scientist who first identified the common cause for spreading infection – doctors not washing their hands.


Doctors refused to accept responsibility for the deaths of their patients, leading Szasz to note: "It taught me, at an early age, that being wrong can be dangerous, but being right, when society regards the majority's falsehood as truth, could be fatal."


What else defines our umwelts? Humans are incredibly visual creatures, so quality should be as visually communicative as possible, defining unique requirements with colours, embracing flowcharts and stimulating our visual perception.


Pain is also a key contributor and significant motivator; how often have we sought a change in a business to find there is limited motivation? We all experience pain differently based on the type and proximity – keep this in mind when focusing on inspiring the change we need to move towards improvement and away from risk.


Article originated in Quality.org


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