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Operational Definitions - The Key to Effective Communications(1999/02)

Ed Tilden

I participate in a discussion network of quality professionals, and read many of the quality related periodicals and books. One common topic of discussion is the frustration over communicating quality topics, or any topic for that matter , with those who do not understand the terminology we quality professionals tend to use daily. Their 'paradigm' is not the same as ours, and that makes it hard for them to understand what we are trying to say. If we do not understand the other person then learning and change are very difficult and may result in learning or doing the wrong things. This is the dilemma facing any agent of change, or in fact any of us in our daily communications with co-workers, friends and family.

One of the profound things I learned from W. Edwards Deming in his books and seminars was that words get in the way of Profound Knowledge unless everyone is 'operating from the same sheet of music' (my phrase). Defining the 'operational definition' of words and phrases is a critical FIRST STEP in communicating ideas or facts effectively.

In his book Out of the Crisis, Deming states, "An operational definition puts communicable meaning into concept. In the opinion of many people in industry, there is nothing more important for transaction of business than use of operational definitions. It could also be said that no requirement of industry is so much neglected."

Deming again mentions operational definitions in his last book The New Economics. "An operational definition is a procedure agreed upon for translation of a concept into measurement of some kind." He then follows with the famous example by Dr. Mary Leitnaker of counting the different types of animals in a collection of animal crackers. One of the cows has a leg missing.Is this a "cow?" If the rules are not defined one person might count it and another might not.

"There is no true value of any characteristic, state, or condition that is defined in terms of measurement or observation. Change of procedure for measurement (change of operational definition) or observation produces a new number."

Deming goes one step further to state in effect that there are very few 'true values' of anything. The exceptions he mentions are the prime numbers under 100. He states that "This is information, not knowledge. It predicts nothing except anybody else can get the same number. Likewise it is a fact - information - that the reader is reading these lines." The term 'get the facts' means nothing, for "There is no such thing as a fact concerning an empirical observation."

A quality consultant went to one of the countries in the former Soviet Union to teach quality concepts. As he was explaining the impact of quality procedures on competition, one of the senior business leaders in attendance asked him to explain "competition." The term was not yet well understood in a country where there had never been a free enterprise system.

In this case the lack of understanding became obvious because the listener was not afraid to speak up and admit his lack of understanding. However, how often is the listener afraid to admit lack of understanding? The reasons for this fear are too numerous to get into and that is not the point. The point is that an effective communicator (teacher, facilitator, trainer, etc.) is responsible for insuring that the listener understands what is being communicated. The listener doesn't necessarily know enough on the subject to know what they don't understand. Therefore, the 'transmitter' of the message must insure that the message is being received without any 'static' or 'garble' (to use a military communications analogy).

The concept of "measuring the variation" leaves a lot of interpretation to the listener. The type of variation, and how to measure it are only a few of the key elements in understanding this phrase. Before organizations can implement statistical measurement and improvement techniques they must learn the new paradigm.

The definition of "Total Quality Management (TQM)" is another good example. When some people hear this term they think of something that 'management' is doing. Others think of 'empowerment' and less management direction. There are probably as many definitions for this term as there are people defining it. I believe this is why Deming was so set against such terms. He believed in using terms and concepts that were as unambiguous as possible. Even then, he was greatly frustrated, I think, with some people's inability to 'understand.'

Another example that I have observed is the misunderstanding of the term "team." I have met people who react with fear to that term because of their experiences with team sports. Some were participants in team sports who never did anything but warm a bench. To them, being part of a team means being left out. Others think of a team as an environment where they can exert their strong will without the fear of supervisor interaction. Again, their experiences foster this paradigm. When forming teams we must be careful to define the goals, roles and procedures to be followed by all members of the team and their support system. Many teams fail because of this lack of 'operational definition' up front.

If you look at Deming's 14 Points you can see the need for 'operational definitions' in all of them. Before we can discuss the 14 Points, his System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK), SPC, Poka-Yoke (the last two not Deming terms) or any other subject we must first agree on the definition of the words and concepts we are using. We must practice defining our words as part of our communications in order to reduce misunderstanding, and thus precipitate more efficient discussion at a higher level (in all aspects of our life).

In my experiences teaching Deming's SoPK, the 14 Points, SPC, PDSA, etc., I have always been careful to survey my audience in advance to see what their 'operational definitions' are on each subject. Due to varying cultures in organizations there is always a unique understanding of the key words and concepts. As subjects are presented the definitions are clarified and discussed as necessary to insure understanding.

For us 'quality professionals' one possible way to make the most impact in our own or client organizations is to help them operationally define key aspects of there work processes such as quality measures, and common business terms such as 'safe, reliable, performance, good,' etc. This is a great first step into the realm of quality management, the use of accurate measurement techniques, and the application of all other quality techniques. We must also place greater emphasis on operational definitions in our relations with family and friends. Wouldn't it be nice if we could get our politicians to practice the use of operational definitions in their law making process?

"A rose by any other name is still a rose" makes sense to everyone - that is, everyone who knows what a rose is.

[Ed Tilden is President of TQL Associates, a Training, Quality & Leadership development consulting firm located in Columbia, SC. He is an American Society for Quality (ASQ) Certified Quality Manager, a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, and a retired naval officer with an MBA in Management. He can be contacted via email at] Please let me know that you received this.


Ed Tilden



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