Heard this recently; “There’s always room for improvement”? What about “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?

W. Edwards Deming was an American engineer and statistician who educated the Japanese about quality control for the best part of the last century. Imagine that.

He was worshipped in Japan for his ability to find continual improvements in the manufacturing process. He proved time and time again that there is always room for improvement. At the same time the Japanese evolved into a “quality” power-house, America continued to churn out variable rubbish, apparently (according to my lecturer who was actively involved) justifying their manufacturing process with the thinking “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

So at the same time, in the same industries, Japan and America, lived by the contradictory cliches: “There’s always room for improvement” (Japan) and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (America).

Very opposite, yet both (commonly) exist and are still frequently used, without most of us ever questioning them directly.

Lets look at a few more of these contradictory cliches?

“Look before you leap” VS “He who hesitates is lost”

“You’re never too old to learn” VS “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”

“Stick to your knitting” VS “Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket”

“Many hands make light work” VS “Too many cooks spoil the broth”

The scary thing about clichés is that we think they represent common wisdom, and so we hesitate to question them. I’ve seen a well timed cliché end an argument stone cold, such can be the power of this perceived ‘common wisdom’.

This article is in one part a reminder to question those clichés, and another part about reminiscing on some engineering learning (which I rarely get to do). But please don’t take my word for it… because common wisdom is often unwise.

image via Lexus