Monday, December 01, 2008

PI/QI: Theological Reflections (2)

(This post is the second in a series on theological reflection on Performance Improvement/Quality Improvement. This material was first published in “Performance Improvement: Theological Reflections”, Chaplaincy Today, Vol. 16, Number 1 (Summer, 2000), and has been reedited for this setting. For future posts in this series or in the series on measurement for chaplains, please select the label "PI/QI" in the left hand column.)

Performance Improvement: Theological Reflections, Part 2
Scriptural Images and PI

While I would not state that the performance improvement process as we use it is laid out explicitly in Scripture, I would suggest that there are a number of themes and traditions in Scripture that offer models within which performance improvement, or some aspect of the process, makes sense. One theme is that of the journey of formation. Abraham commits himself to a journey, and it is the events of that journey that inform and shape his relationship with God. Jacob’s history is shaped by choices and even by experimentation, and his failures are as instructive as his successes. Their stories reflect a commitment to live within a relationship that will change not only their behaviors, but their names and their personhood. In parallel, performance improvement is based on a commitment to a long-term process resulting in not only changes in particular tasks and systems, but also a pervasive change in the corporate culture of the institution. It is , in a way, formative of the community within an organization as the wilderness experience was formative for Israel. (I will grant that some who have been involved in a performance improvement project may see another parallel with Israel: the process can seem to take a long time to reach its goal.)

The importance of this commitment to pervasive change is expressed most clearly in two of the principles of W. Edwards Deming, whose management philosophy is fundamental for performance improvement. His first two principles for change are “Create constancy of purpose for the improvement of product and service,” and “Adopt the new philosophy.”[1] Clearly, Deming understood that long-term improvement requires a commitment to a new vision, and not simply changes of separate tasks or positions within the system.

One aspect of Scripture in which there is some reflection of performance improvement, in the sense we would use the term, is in the writings of the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. The role of the Prophet in Israel’s history, as reflected in Scripture, is to confront Israel regarding behavior. The Prophets called for both personal and corporate self-evaluation and change. When Israel does not heed the call to reflection and renewal, the people suffer. When Israel does repent, Israel is blessed.

This is reflected in the prophetic books both in narrative and in prophecy per se. Thus, when Nineveh hears the half-hearted ministry of Jonah, the people respond with behaviors of repentance, and the Lord withholds his wrath. (Jon. 3)[2] Conversely, Amos is extensive, and even bitter, in his description of the sins of Israel. He writes,
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out
against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!
They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:6-7, 10-15)

It is notable in this passage, as well as in comparable passages in Jeremiah and Micah, that the emphasis is on performance. The Lord is displeased with Israel because of failures to provide services for those in need. There is also a strong implication that a part of the failure is in the people’s false belief that they are pleasing God and that God is pleased with them. In that sense, they are currently acting on their own perceptions and not on measured data. At the same time, in the prophetic literature, standards are proclaimed that might also be called “operational norms”. Thus, Micah 6:8 records, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

An example of this comes from the Second Book of Kings, chapter 22 and following. In the process of renovation to the Temple under Josiah, a text, “the book of the law”, was discovered. While we might not call the consequences of that discovery performance improvement, there are certain parallels. The text itself became the new data regarding the behavior of the people of Judah. This was confirmed by consultation of the prophetess Huldah, who might be said to have provided both additional data and some evaluation. With this data, Josiah entered into a radical refocusing of the religious and political practices of the people. This was not a gradual change, a sort of CQI, but a rapid and fundamental change more similar to reengineering . All these changes had short-term consequences of returning Judah to traditional norms of life as God’s people and had the long-term consequence of staving off God’s wrath against Jerusalem during Josiah’s lifetime.

In the Christian Scriptures of the New Testament, once again there is no explicit reference to performance improvement as such. However, there are images that would be consistent. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes standards for behavior that would allow for measurement. He calls for an accurate self-assessment:

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matt. 7:3-5)

Moreover, within the sermon, there is a mandate that lends itself readily to a philosophy of continuous improvement: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48)

Another image which readily lends itself to performance improvement as we understand it is Paul’s frequent reference to the athlete. He does this fully in First Corinthians:

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (1Cor.9:24-27)
While this is not an explicit reference to performance improvement, the reference to a training regimen and to competition offers some parallel.

[1] Mary Walton, The Deming Management Method (New York: Perigee Books, 1986), 55ff.
[2] All quotations from Christian Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV)
Next: PI and Ascetical Theology

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