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Many years ago I was involved in implementing TQM (total quality management) and BPR (business process re-engineering) programs for a large telecom company. Such programs are about applying a rigorous, fact-driven methodology to achieving better results in business. Typically, when implementing TQM or BPR, organizations put teams in place to solve problems or streamline processes. These teams gather facts, propose hypotheses, implement potential fixes, and carefully measure the results. When the results are positive, the organization is that much closer to achieving Total Quality (or the Business Process has been Re-Engineered — depending on which methodology you’re using.)
One of the hallmarks of these programs — which I think survive today primarily in the Six Sigma movement — was endlessly rattling off jargon reduced to abbreviations, which we referred to as “acronyms,” although only some of them were. Technically, TQM and BPR are just abbreviations, whereas our criteria for evaluating goals, RUMBA — goals must be Reasonable, Understandable, Measurable, Believable, and Achievable — was an acronym.
As an English major, this is a huge issue for me, but perhaps a bit of a digression for present purposes.
Another hallmark of these programs was the seemingly endless amount of business folk wisdom that people involved therein were capable of spewing. Some of this was borrowed from the self-help world — “Do you want to be a Hero or a Zero?” — while some was native to the world of Total Quality. One of my favorites, which I used at work just yesterday, goes like this:
We cannot improve what we cannot measure.
I’m not sure, but W. Edwards Deming himself, the high priest / patron saint of business process improvement, may have said that.
There are pedantic arguments that can be made against this credo, but on the whole I think it holds up pretty well. If we want to improve something, we need a baseline understanding of its current condition and a means of gauging any changes that we cause to occur.
All of which leads me to Kevin Kelly and the quantified self. I had never heard of this idea until Christine Peterson mentioned it a couple of months ago on the podcast in the context of plugging her then-upcoming Personalized Life Extension conference. One of the tracks at the conference was Self-Experimentation, a process whereby people try out various means of improving their health and extending their lives. Like one-person Total Quality teams, these self-experimenters use highly a highly disciplined approach and keep careful records of the results of their efforts.
They are looking to improve what they very much can measure. Kevin Kelly tracks these kinds of efforts and tools developed to support them via his blog, the Quantified Self:
Quantified Self is a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self knowledge through self-tracking. We exchange information about our personal projects, the tools we use, tips we’ve gleaned, lessons we’ve learned here at our group blog.
You would be amazed to see how many such tools are out there. Our lives are subject to our own observation and measurement like never before. The question is, can all this data collection and tracking lead to truly improved lives?
Well, it can. But we have to be careful. We can’t improve what we can’t measure, but measuring alone doesn’t necessarily lead to any sustained or lasting improvements. Consider the number of people who weigh themselves regularly versus the number who actually lose any weight.
One of my favorite sites in this vein — oddly not included in Kelly’s list, is Zapoint.com, which provides tools for mapping out one’s skills, education, and work history via an elegant set of web dashboards and analytics tools. The result kind of leaves the old idea of the resume in the dust. Here are my skills mapped against a timeline of professional, educational, and personal achievements showing where each skill was used and developed:
Click on the picture to get more detail or go here to learn more about me than you might be interested in finding out.
This is not a bad snapshot of my life. I believe such a presentation of the pertinent data really can help me to make improvements going forward. And actually, as I commented recently to Zapoint’s CEO and founder, Chris Twyman (an old friend), what I really think is missing from this picture is all the stuff to the right of the present.
We can’t measure the future, but we can estimate it based on the past. I think an increasingly important aspect of these tools that serve to quantify our lives will be how thoroughly (and accurately) they help us to guide our lives to the next step.