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Mike Micklewright

Health Care

God’s “Mistakes”

And how education and quality try to “correct” them

Published: Monday, January 4, 2010 - 17:34

Can you imagine producing products with a tremendous amount of variation? I’m sure many of you know this all too well. I mean, here you’re trying to produce the same products, trying to ensure consistency, and many of the products you produce have different shades of color, many function differently, many look different, some are good, some are bad, some have different foundations, some are robust, and some are weak. This situation would be a quality control specialist’s dream, as it would provide job security for centuries… as indeed it has.

But if you think about it, God (or you may insert Allah, Spiritual Being, Yahweh, etc.) made exactly these types of products. He made all of us. And he didn’t do a very good job in ensuring consistency. We differ so much… in color, in intellect, in beliefs, in values, in looks, in size, in sex, in age, in abilities, and in kindness. We are not standard. We have a lot of variation. Variation causes frustration and poor performing systems. This is why we fight so much. What was God thinking and why did he perform so inconsistently in making us? I'm being sarcastic, here, of course. Variation is what makes each of us unique.

We have, however, an educational system and certain quality processes that attempt to standardize us so that we are closer to being the same, you know, more robotic, at least within the same country. Do you remember the female back-up singers in Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Loved video? Our educational system and quality processes are trying to make us all alike, at least in our thinking. Sometimes, however, the educational system and quality processes do not work and nonconforming product (bad people) result.

Again, fortunately, we also have laws in place that represent a standard of what is considered acceptable behavior by the general public as determined by those who we elect. When certain products (people) do not meet the standard of acceptability (nonconformity), the judicial system will either:

• Take action to eliminate the nonconformity (especially in Texas)

• Authorize its use, release, or acceptance under concession by an authority (judge)

• Take action appropriate to the effects, or potential effects, of the nonconformity when nonconforming product is detected after delivery (birth)


When nonconforming product is corrected, it shall be subject to reverification to demonstrate conformity to requirements (probation, ankle monitor, house arrest).

Basically we put nonconforming people on hold, rework them, repair them, or scrap them.

I recently visited my best childhood friend (from when we were 16 or 17) in a maximum security prison in Iowa. I hadn’t seen him in about 14 years. He is on “hold” and in the process of being “reworked.” The correction should take about another 25 years, on top of the five years already served. When, and if, he is corrected and alive, he will be subject to reverification.

Education system

Our educational system tries to standardize us so that we are more alike. It attempts to diffuse or minimize the variation that God created and make us more alike, just like a quality control (QC) inspector might do. Why? Because variation is evil and it shall not be tolerated. The educators dream up standardized tests, focusing primarily on reading and writing skills, which are geared toward what a normal student who learns normally should accomplish. The curriculum is developed to ensure that the students learn what will be on the standardized tests, so that they do well, the teacher does well, the school does well, and the teacher and school receives more funds. Students are taught how to take tests, not how to learn or discover or create or challenge or to gain more knowledge. What is important are grades and test scores, not gained knowledge. School becomes a job and children begin to lose their natural desire to learn.

Students also learn to work within the system and not challenge the system. This is excellent training for when they get into the work force and have already been programmed to not challenge the system within which they work. Not challenging the system is further encouraged through the worker’s grading and evaluation system—the annual performance reviews. The annual performance review encourages all employees to work within the system and not challenge it. The performance reviewers (at work) and the teachers (at school) are nothing more than QC inspectors. If you fail to meet the established standards, you are a failure. Since both of these practices occur and both are based on a normal distribution, much more than half of all students and employees feel average, below average or, failures. To a student, this is demoralizing, and many end up in prison. To the adults, they are conditioned and used to feeling this way. Nonetheless, they are still demoralized and unmotivated.

Those who don’t or can’t learn normally, because their brains are wired differently than most, feel like failures in school. They are called stupid. We make “short bus” jokes. They are slowly being QCed out of the system. Some are put on “hold,” or held back a year, so that they can relearn the same material that they didn’t understand the first time. How motivating. All the kids in class know about the other bigger, older kid in their class who was held back. They laugh at him and he feels stupid. He feels just like that nonconforming product sitting in the nonconforming cage with a big red “Nonconforming” tag pinned to his shirt.

And yet, many of these kids are smart. Some are dyslexic. The National Institutes of Health estimates that between 15 and 20 percent of all U.S. citizens, or 60 million Americans are dyslexic. Others believe the figure could be much higher. Sixty million Americans struggle in school and then struggle again in a work force as they struggle to survive in standardized education and organizational systems that were not created for them. Sixty million Americans feel dumb at school and at work because they can’t read the way a “normal” person should be able to read. And yet these sixty million people are smart, and most important, very creative. Their brains just work differently than what’s “normal.” Their brains do not store words like “normal” brains do for quick and immediate recall. Each time they read a common word, it’s like the first time that they’ve seen the word. Most dyslexics somehow find a way to cope. Some, like Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s, Charles Schwab, Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, Craig McCaw of Nextel, John Chambers of Cisco Systems, and Jay Leno, become very successful because of their creativity. Many end up in prison. Most are limited in what they can do at work in our “one system fits all” organizations or, they are just beaten down after living through all those growing-up years feeling stupid.

My friend in prison, a former pharmaceutical drug salesman, says that he now has the best job he has ever had. He teaches other inmates math, grammar, and other office skills. He makes 43 cents an hour for two hours of work every day. He then stays another six hours and continues to teach inmates, with no pay. He obviously does not do it for the money; he does it for the sheer joy of teaching others. He is one of the few college-educated inmates in that prison and he says that the vast majority of those he teaches are learning disabled and many are dyslexic. In fact, the Yorkshire and Humberside study from 2005, which was sponsored by the Dyslexia Institute, found that the incidence of dyslexia was three to four times higher in the prison population than in the general population (where the incidence is 15–20%), and claims that this figure is about in the middle of what other studies have found. That would mean anywhere from 45 to 80 percent of the entire prison population is dyslexic and all of them most probably felt like failures during their formative years as they struggled through our educational system.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who feel like failures will make sure they act like failures, and will eventually put themselves into a nonconforming cage (prison). Our educational system, with its standardized tests, curriculums, and methods of teaching, is the same as the inspection process within the business environment. It is the QC department and it is the beginning of the identification and sorting of the “bad” stuff away from the “good” stuff (kids).

In the middle of a sleepless night about a month ago these two thoughts came to mind:

• The problem with the educational system today is that we treat our children as the product to be standardized, not as the customer.

• We develop our children to conform to the product (curriculum) and tests. We don’t develop the product (curriculum) and tests to conform to the children’s abilities and strengths.


Since that night, I knew that I would write this article. Also since then, I was elected to be a member of the US TAG to ISO/TC 176, the organization that develops the U.S. positions on international standardization activities on quality management and quality assurance.

The first document I had to review was Z1.11—“Quality Management System Standards—Requirements for Education Organizations.” Basically, it is ISO 9001 written specifically for schools, or educational organizations. It is a guidance standard, identified as IWA2:2007—“Quality management systems—Guidelines for the application of ISO 9001:2000 in education,” that has been in existence for 13 years and was up for review to become an international standard. The justification for a new international standard to supplement ISO 9001 and to replace ISO IWA2 is based on years of user experience in education organizations registered to ISO 9001 or guided by ISO IWA2. The purpose of this quality management system standard is to enable an educational organization to know the degree to which it fulfills its requirements, controls its resources, and stabilizes its processes.

I had never read the document before, let alone ever heard of it. Like ISO 9001, it is supposed to be based on eight principles:

• Focus on students
• Senior leadership
• Value of faculty and staff involvement
• Support for process management
• Systems perspective
• Continual improvement
• Factual approach to decision making
• Mutually beneficial public and private supplier relationships

My first inkling that the standard was misguided and aligned with the current thinking in education was in the description of the first principle: “Focus on students.” It states, “Quality in education is the degree to which educational requirements are fulfilled by students. Standards specify what students are expected to know and be able to do. Performance standards contain coherent and rigorous content for fulfilling students’ learning requirements and for encouraging performance excellence.”

If the document was truly focused on students, shouldn’t the first sentence above be “Quality in education is the degree to which students are fulfilled by the educational system to meet their particular and individual needs based on the unique method by which each student learns”?

The principle “Focus on students” is great in and of itself, but some of content in the actual standard is based on “Focus on educational requirements,” not the student. Educational requirements are based on meeting the requirements of standardized testing, which is based on reading, writing, and focusing skills, which are the same skills that those with dyslexia or ADHD just do not and cannot possess. Much of the standard is actually very good and student focused, except for the parts about adherence to these standardized test requirements that any “normal” person should be able to attain.

Section 8.3 of the standard states, “Alternative means may be established by which to correct individual student nonconforming achievement to avoid the student’s abandonment of the education program, but under no circumstances shall a student be considered a nonconforming product.” This is a nice attempt to provide a positive focus to the failing student, but one way or the other, as long as students with learning disabilities have to take tests based on reading and writing skills, they will feel like failures and many will end up in prison.

Variation in products and processes is ugly and needs to be minimized.

Variation in people is beautiful and needs to be embraced, not QCed.

My seven-year-old daughter (who, by the way, is bored in school) and I like to call each other “weirdos,” to which the recipient always replies, “Thank you.”

We need to encourage more “weirdos” that being different is not bad, in fact, it’s often very good. The educational system and the QCing of employees at work is where change must occur.

Thanks to my wife, Donna, a special education teacher and literary specialist who focuses on helping dyslexic children cope in the written- and reading-focused world we live in, for inspiring me to write this article.


About The Author

Mike Micklewright’s picture

Mike Micklewright

Mike Micklewright has been teaching and facilitating quality and lean principles worldwide for more than 25 years. He specializes in creating lean and continuous improvement cultures, and has implemented continuous improvement systems and facilitated kaizen/Six Sigma events in hundreds of organizations in the aerospace, automotive, entertainment, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and warehousing industries. Micklewright is the U.S. director and senior consultant for Kaizen Institute. He has an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and he is ASQ-certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality auditor, quality engineer, manager of quality/operational excellence, and supply chain analyst.

Micklewright hosts a video training series by Kaizen Institute on integrating lean and quality management systems in order to reduce waste.


Interesting quote

Found this quote I thought was interesting:

"It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeking and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty."

It was written/stated by Albert Einstein in 1949

'God's Mistakes???'

Although your article was interesting and hit on some key issues facing society today, in my opinion to post something in the public or private eye for that matter which says or even implies ( even if you're trying to be sarcastic as you stated) that GOD makes mistakes....is inexcusable! GOD doesn't make mistakes.

qcing the wrong thing

As a former middle school teacher, I have often felt the Baldrige process is being mis-applied in schools. To use our QC lingo, we're trying to test quality into the product (the students) but are not qcing the raw material. Students after all come from a variety of suppliers each of whom will "certify" their product is acceptable. (Don't believe me? sit in on a parent-teacher conference when there is "bad" news)

QC is great when you're trying to ensure safety or uniformity--such as making hamburgers. But you wouldn't use the McDonald's qc chart to define what a 5-star restaurant's food should be surely. (No offense to McDonald's, they're just not the same thing) There would be similarities such as degrees of cleanliness and portion control but again, the raw product may be vastly different. And our expectations would be, too.

But this same effort to QC our kids into very similar positions leads us to train everyone to the same degree: and I don't believe the educational customers (society/future employers/other tax payers) want everyone to be exactly the same. We don't all work in factory jobs any more after all.

We, as Quality professionals need to help define how our tools are used, then help define what the requirements are so we can have Quality students and later, quality citizens.

Mike, this was a great

Mike, this was a great column. Thought provoking as usual. Thanks.

God's "Mistakes"

Mike, as a person who always struggles to be within the "six sigma" limits of "normal," your article points out a very real issue with today's educational system / process. Like your daughter, school for me was boring which left me to my own devices to make school more interesting (some may say into trouble). Notes were always being sent home to my parents and when no notes were given to take home my parents wondered if I had been to school that day!

Children (and adults) are not widgets. There is no mold or tool that can make us all the same -- no matter how hard we try to "reprogram" someone. We, as parents, should be shouting at the tops of our lungs at educators and governmental agencies who insist on turning our children into mindless beings and diminish their self-worth because they are "different." Of course they are different! Each child (and adult) learns independently. The pathways in our brains form by the experiences we encounter. Each one of us processes information dependent on those experiences. Imagine how truly boring this world would really be if we were all the same.

It's time we embrace our uniqueness, call our uniqueness "common cause" variation and stick to driving out variation on non-living objects.

Excellent Article

Thank you for publishing this article. It is nice to see someone write about God in the business world, and to see someone willing to publish such an article.

Jack Dearing


This was always the problem when I taught school; there was no incoming raw material inspection or quality control. Every item was different and I was supposed to teach all 120 of them to the same standard. The vendors (parents) were often of no help and management was nonsupportive. If I could have set the incoming material standards, I would have taught for nothing for the sheer pleasure of it.

Divine Human Optimization

Hi Mike,

I've become a huge fan of your columns here in Quality Digest. I love your perspectives on things that matter to me. This latest article is right in there with the best of the things I've seen you do, so far.

I thought this might be a good time to mention a conversation I had with another man I admire, H. Thomas Johnson (http://www.pdx.edu/sba/fp-h-thomas-johnson ), some years ago. Dr. Johnson is active (as I am) with the In2:InThinking Forum, a group of people, often focused upon improving quality, who think a lot about, well... thinking (http://www.in2in.org/ ).

During this particular luncheon conversation, which included Dr. Bill Bellows, founder of In2:InThinking (http://www.csupomona.edu/~rosenkrantz/ime499/coll3w99.htm ), we were discussing diversity as it relates to processes or systems. We all agreed that W. Edwards Deming clearly taught that reducing process variation was a 'good' thing. Taguchi described variation from a targeted outcome as "loss to society", too.

But then, we got to talking about what it takes to improve a process and, you know? In order to improve a process... yes, yes.... it must first be stabilized ('controlled', with variation minimized, made predictable) BUT... and here's the important part.... THEN... you need to DRIVE THE PROCESS OUT OF CONTROL... in a desired direction, in order to improve (or optimize) it.

Left alone, a process may be perfectly in control, with negible variation, but completely incapable of producing desired results. Adjusted without first being in control, a process's variation increases in undesirable ways (deemed 'tampering' by Deming, who used to lament: "... and OFF to the Milky Way we go!"). But, when a controlled process is carefully driven out of control, such as through a Designed Experiment, process optimization has a chance of happening.

I enjoy natural system analogies, so I likened the increased variation required for process improvement to divine intervention, manifest as genetic diversity among plants and animals, including human beings. Tom seemed to liken it more to evolution, and considered evolution to be independent of anything God might have to do with anything. I gathered this might have been because Tom thought divinity shouldn't have anything to do with science. We disagreed on that point, because I believe that divine inspiration is the source of every great scientific breakthrough.

So, whenever I hear about the extent to which we human types embrace and appreciate our unique weirdness, I smile. In my opinion, Human diversity is just an indication that God is continually driving the process of Human variation OUT of control.... to optimize it.

Diane Kulisek
Quality Professional


This is an excellent article that captures some of the best, and worst aspects of Quality. As a professional in the quality improvement and business management areas I constantly try to challenge people to think about the philosophy of quality improvement and then think about tools to accomplish the goal. I continue to do some guest teaching at the college level so my experience is a bit different then the authors but the conclusions are the same. The variation in people, and the ability to leverage that 'mistake' to craft highly successful teams is critical to our future success. This article is unique and eloquent and a must read!


Oh Mike Oh Mike what a dream it must have been? Reading this this morning brought tears to my eyes as you have related Quality to the human being. Your writing has touched my heart for within you describe the very essence of failure in the understanding of what constitues QUALITY.
I have been in the management game all my life, i'm 66, and have found that the secret of success as a manager is having the capability to bring out the best in people. To embrace failure and as my dear mother once said, happy are they that embrace change.
It seems in this current world of ours we are always seeking to apportion blame when things go wrong. Instead we should be asking what can we learn from this that will make us better people.
Some time past I worked in a printery with a machine that was worth close to $2,000,000. A huge 6 colour machine that makes the most exquisit prints. One night on the night shift the press operator was printing a very large poster. The job was worth $60,000US. As is normal with the computer controlled machinery of today the machine was self correcting. However the standard operating procedure was an instruction to the pressman to pull every 10,000th poster and check it for correctness. The pressman that night fell in love with the computer control and thought that as the machine was self correcting that he would let the machine run until the job was complete.
And so the machine ran on into wee small hours before signalling that it had finsihed the print run. The pressman went to the delivery stack and pulled the top copy. On placing this on the examination table he noted a big yellow splat right in the midle of the poster. He turned to the rest of the stack and low and behold the whole print run was infected by this large yellow blot..
The whole printery was alive with the failure. In the mens room it was the only topic of converstation. Then the CEO arrived and was duly informed of the failure. He sent for me. I was the maintenance manager, can you explain this he requested? Yes I said the yellow ink duct had somehow come loose and with the machine vibration the duct was slightly cocked allowing the yellow ink to overflow and drip onto the finished poster each time it made a pass.
What to do he asked? Nothing, I answered. He looked strangely at me and then asked me to explain my thinking. In truth the pressman was the best operator they had. This was why he was given the new printing machine to operate. If you sack him you will loose this man of great experience. He will have learnt a lesson here yes a $60,000 lesson but a lesson never the less. Your suggested course of action then, he requested. I advised him to have his secretary put on a morning coffee in his suite and to invite the pressman to explain what went wrong. Then after receiving his explanation he would invite him to have a coffee and biscuit and then seek a solution in preventing this happening ever again.
He did exactly as I had advised. The printery was alive with expectation that the pressman would get the sack and eagerly awaited the outcome.
The pressman finally came out of the CEO's office and headed straight for mine. He stood there in front of me shaking but smiling. He could only utter the words thank you and extended his hand. I shook it warmly and enquired as to what his proposed solution was. But that's another story. This was some 15 years ago and he is still working there to this day. I'm told the quality of his work cannot be bettered.
I now make it my mission to seek out those in the organisation that the company would want to get rid of. The so called no-hopers. I then set about turning these people on. Let me tell you once you flip the switch there's no turning back. Nonconformances become things of the past. Innovation becomes the norm and the rest is runaway success.
Thanks Mike for stirring the emptions this morning I shall have a beautiful day.
God Bless

Rob Langdon
Quality Manager
Biomedical Technology Services

You're just a radical

and shuold be branded as nonconforming and locked away without access to publish anything else ever again. Or then again, maybe we radicals can get together and make the world a better place.

God's "Mistakes"

Well written! We have six "normal" children, albeit one with Down Syndrome, and one reason we homeschool is because they are all so different! Your argument might be bolstered by a review of Plato's philosphy of education: the root meaning of 'education' is "to draw out".

God bless!
Brian Lane