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Define the System and the Aim: Role of a Manager in Education (Part 1)

In Their Own Words

Release Date: 02/21/2023

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With this episode, Andrew and David P. Langford start a new series on the Role of the Manager in Education. Inspired by chapter 6 in The New Economics, Andrew and David apply Dr. Deming's 14 points for "the role of a manager of people after transformation" to the world of education. (Note: this is not about Deming's 14 Points for Management.)

0:00:02.6 Andrew Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz, and I'll be your host as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Today, I'm continuing my discussion with David P. Langford, who has devoted his life to applying Dr. Deming's philosophy to education, and he offers us his practical advice for implementation. Today's topic is the beginning of a series, The role of a manager in education. David, take it away.

 

0:00:29.9 David Langford: Hello, Andrew. So I always wanna say good morning or good evening, but you're in Thailand, and I'm in Montana, so there's a problem there.

 

0:00:39.8 AS: [laughter] They both work.

 

0:00:41.8 DL: So yeah. [chuckle] So glad to be back again.

 

0:00:43.4 AS: Great to be with you.

 

0:00:44.8 DL: So yes, I wanted to dive into this, because I actually had a number of comments that people have sent me, both email and Twitter and all those kinds of things, yeah, asking questions about it, et cetera. And even at seminars, I get questions about it. So we're working from Dr. Deming's book, The New Economics, in chapter six, and I have the third edition, so in my case, we're on page 86. And Deming... And the whole chapter is about the management of people. So Deming laid out about 14 different points about what managers should do, how should you operate, and what should you do, and et cetera. So I thought it'd be really good for us to kinda work our way through those and discuss what does that mean in education. Because, do we even have managers in education? So probably the first thing I wanna point out is he has a whole chapter on leadership, which is different, I think, than management. And so, I think this is getting more to on the day-to-day operations, what are we supposed to be doing or how do we operate?

 

0:02:03.5 DL: And he even makes the distinction, the role of the manager of people after the transformation. So that basically means, okay, you've read about Deming, you've... Or you read The New Economics, or you've watched videos, or you learned about it. And you kinda made that transformation that, "Hey, this is where I wanna go, and this is what I wanna do." Well, then comes, "Okay, well, what do I do Monday morning?" is the big... Always the big question I get. And if somebody can't help you figure out what to do Monday morning, then they really... I don't think they really understand themselves about what to do, and you should probably find another coach or another leader to [chuckle] help you sort of figure that out. So let's take the first point, and maybe you wanna read it off for our audience and...

 

0:03:00.2 AS: Yeah. So the first of these points is, "A manager understands and conveys to his people the meaning of a system. He explains the aim of the system. He teaches his people to understand how the work of the group supports these aims." Simple stuff.

 

0:03:26.6 DL: Well, it... On the surface, it does sound simple, but doing it is another matter. So I wanna take this right down to the classroom level and say that as a classroom teacher, you are a manager of people. And it doesn't really matter what age they are, if it's talking pre-school all the way to graduate school, you're a manager of people. So the first thing he says, "The manager understands and conveys to his people the meaning of a system." So people always wanna know, "Where do I start? What do I do?" Well, there's a pretty good place to start right there. What is a system? So a system has inputs coming into it, and then it has the system itself, which is made up of processes within that system, and the system then has outputs, right. So in education, I remember back when Deming first started to get well-known, and people from business especially would come into education circles and try to tell educators what to do or how they should be managing to achieve quality, et cetera. And one of the first things they would do is they would talk about students as products, like you would think about in a company.

 

0:05:00.5 DL: And I kinda went for a couple of years thinking through that, and then all of a sudden it dawned on me, and a lot of it had to do with reading this section here. Students are not products, right? And if you think of them like that, then you're gonna think of them like inanimate objects that you do things to basically. And if I just adjust the process here, then suddenly all the kids will just be better, they'll learn better, et cetera, et cetera. Or I just throw in a new curriculum, and everything is gonna be fine, or you're not actually involving them in the process at all. So when I started giving seminars and working with people, I started to explain that the product of an education system is the learning itself. So what are they learning and to what degree do they... Are they learning, and how are you managing the people in that system to optimize the learning? And if you think of it like that, then you start to think of students as basically workers like in a company, in an organization. They're there to actually help you produce a product and tell you when things are going well and when things are not going well and how to make adjustments and everything to get a different result, right. And I find that when people sort of make that understanding in a system, especially as a teacher, you start to think of kids totally different.

 

0:06:46.6 DL: I remember when I first started and encountered Deming, teachers used to talk about students in a very derogatory way, and, "Oh, that kid isn't even worth this," and, "That kid's not worth that and can't... " That they didn't actually think of them as part of the... Of a system. And so when I started... Part of the problem is the nomenclature that we use, we have system, we have teachers, we have students, and along with that comes certain definitions that have evolved over the last couple hundred years. So when I started actually teaching teachers to stop using the term students and start calling them colleagues. Well, at first there was sort of an uproar [chuckle] about that. I remember one teacher telling me, "I mean, that snotty-nosed kid that says duh all the time, I'm supposed to think of him as my colleague?" and "Well, yes, you are, [chuckle] because that's your job," right, is to sort of... And Deming's talking about it here, is to optimize the system. Alright, so your job is to get those students to work with you as colleagues to study the system of learning, understand is it working or not, right? So how would we know it's working?

 

0:08:20.7 DL: Well, if you understand a system, you understand that there are outputs. So when students go on to the next level, is it working? It's pretty... It's actually pretty easy to measure that, right? So if I'm a third grade teacher teaching third grade math, am I sending students onto fourth grade math, continually getting better and better every year, and more and more of them are achieving to higher and higher levels every single year? Well, I can measure that pretty easily. I can just get the fourth grade math scores, or I could go to fourth grade teachers and find out, how are these kids doing?

 

0:09:01.2 AS: It's such an interesting... You're making me think about it, because really what education is, is it seems to me like it's a service, and it's a process, and if... And it's something that's repeated over and over again just like on a... In a business, we have many processes that are repeated over again. And when you improve that... Imagine that one school went on a mission to continually improve. And they're constantly looking at how to improve, and they have iterations every term as they go through these lessons. Imagine if they were focused on that, students would flock to them from around the world to come to get that transformation of learning and that experience and of learning the output and say, "I wanna come out of this process where those other people are, where I've really gained that knowledge." So am I right about that? Is there anything that you would add to that?

 

0:10:06.2 DL: Yeah, no, that's exactly right. And I think that's what Deming is giving here. I mean, it sounds simple, that as a leader or a manager, you're supposed to explain what a system is and how it works, but there's a lot of depth there about... And you mentioned continual improvement. Well, is your system continually getting better year after year, or are you just doing the same thing, you're no worse this year than you were last year kinda thing? I used to... I had an uncle, he's in his 90s now. But he taught eighth grade social studies, I think for something like almost forty years. And every year or two, family reunions or something, I'd get together. I'd talk to him about what I was doing and things [chuckle] like that. And we were talking about the system in the classroom and getting better every year, and he just looked at me blankly like I was a complete idiot. And I said, "Don't you do that?" and he said, "No." He said, "Give me a date." I said, "What do you mean give you a date?" And he said "Just give me a date." And I said, "Okay, March 15th," or something. "We'll be on page 286 in the textbook, we'll be studying this, 77% of the kids will be failing the test." I just...

 

0:11:31.1 DL: My mouth just dropped open, because it was a system totally set up for poor performance, and he didn't see it's his job at all to help kids understand the system they were in or try to optimize it or try to make it better, or... That wasn't his job, right? And I remember at Deming conferences, Deming would often say, "A lot of people don't know what their job is."

 

0:12:00.2 AS: Yeah.

 

0:12:00.8 DL: I remember, oftentimes people would get up and ask questions, and he would [chuckle] say, "Sounds like you don't know what your job is." [laughter]

 

0:12:07.3 AS: I remember being a 24 year old...

 

0:12:07.9 DL: And that's sad confronting it. [chuckle] Yeah.

 

0:12:12.1 AS: Twenty four year old kid listening to that when I was in my Deming seminars, and I was just like, "Whoa," listening to the way he responded to these older men and women that were in the audience was kinda shocking for me as a young guy.

 

0:12:23.3 DL: Yeah, a lot of times he's talking to CEOs, he's talking to major [chuckle] people in the military or politics or whatever kinda thinking. But to me, that's how deep this point is. So are you explaining the aims of the system? Well, that first implies that you do have an aim of the system. So, go back...

 

0:12:45.5 AS: Yeah, and so just to highlight for the listeners. So this very short point, number one that he makes starts with this discussion that we've just had about the meaning of a system. And now David is going on to talk about, "Okay, not just the meaning. Okay, now you got that. The question is, What is the aim of this system?"

 

0:13:07.0 DL: Right. So again, if we go back to our example of it was a third grade math teacher. Well, what is the aim of the system? [chuckle] Right? What are you... And are you working with students to actually produce the aim of the system, aim of this classroom, right? And it's not just a matter of just coming up with a phrase that you're gonna put on the wall or something, it's the idea that you're gonna keep communicating that constantly to people, what's the aim of this system. So if you think about if you're supposed to optimize a classroom, well, optimization, we're gonna get the highest number of students to the highest possible level we can get them to in the time that we have to do that, right? And so, if you start thinking like that, this changes your job, because you start to realize, "Wow, I'm supposed to optimize this group of students to the highest level I can get them in the nine months or however... 10 months or however long you have to work with these people. And that is confronting. And if you start to understand that, you start to realize why Deming was so adamant against grading systems, how grading systems just defeat kids.

 

0:14:36.4 DL: So instead of thinking that we're supposed to be spending all of your time figuring out a grading system... Oh, my gosh, over the years, I have heard so many grading systems. And teachers talk about five points for this and 10 points for that, and then I deduct 10 points if they don't do this and if it's not on time and... Wow. Well, pretty soon you start to think that's your job. That my job is to create this grading system, and then you forget all about, "No, my job is to optimize the system." So if I go through a chapter in math, and I'm teaching a particular concept, and then maybe I give students a test on that. And Deming's not saying he's against testing, he says he's against grading and ranking people. That's totally different. And if I give this class a test, and they all do really poorly on [chuckle] this section of math, I just don't say, "Oh well," and go on, because I haven't done my job, I haven't really optimized that. So one of the first things in the system you'd wanna do is to go back and figure out, "Hey guys, what happened?"

 

0:15:50.0 DL: We only got an average of 66% for the whole class on this concept, or... Did I not teach it well enough? Did I... And when I started asking students like colleagues and saying, "Hey, what happened?" they told me things that I didn't wanna hear, like, "You talk too fast," or, "I couldn't understand your accent," or, "We didn't have enough time to work," or just a whole host of real issues from their perspective about what was going on, how you could optimize the system. So then I've got two problems. I got the problems of today, that we gotta re-work this chapter, right? We gotta go back and do it again and optimize that so people do understand this concept. And then the problem of tomorrow was how do I make sure this never happens again, that I never find myself in this same place? But I don't just accept poor performance and just go on, because when you're doing that in a system, especially a system in education where learning is the product, right? Well, what I learn in... What I don't learn in September is going to be magnified by March, April, et cetera, 'cause I didn't learn those concepts back there that I need for subsequent concepts, and therefore, I'm gonna get further and further behind. So as teacher, you're actually just...

 

0:17:18.6 AS: That's so much damage.

 

0:17:19.7 DL: Yeah, you're just shooting yourself in the foot when you just go on and just accept poor performance. And so...

 

0:17:27.8 AS: Well, that... The corollary is of course in manufacturing, in any process, if you're not focusing on the beginning of that process and the design aspect, you build in all kinds of problems that multiply. And that's so critical. I'm just curious, so we've got the meaning of a system, and we've got the aim in the system, and you've talked about highest number of students to the highest level in the time that we have. Also, I'm thinking about my own... In my valuation masterclass boot camp, I always say, and I repeat it, and you said something about repeating, and it made me think, I always say... I mean, every single time I speak to my students, "The valuation master class is about transformation not information." And I set in their minds, the point is I want them to make a true transformation in their thinking. And just by identifying this aim, they become... They think, "What am I talk... What is Andrew talking about? I don't see a transformation, where would that come from? What would that be?" But I'm telling you at the last time that we meet on the final of the six weeks, each person explains the transformation that they went through.

 

0:18:45.2 AS: And it wasn't due... It wasn't mainly due to the content, it was due to the process and all the experience as a whole. I'm just curious.

 

0:18:58.2 DL: So you're making it clear...

 

0:19:00.9 AS: How does that clear?

 

0:19:00.9 DL: Yeah, you're making it clear the aim of that system. I'll ask, sometimes I'll ask teachers, I say, "What's the aim of your system?" And they'll look at me blankly. Sometimes I get answers like, "To get through it." Well, if that's your aim, that's exactly what you're gonna do, right? "I'm just gonna get through it. I don't care if people learn it or not. I don't care about the product of learning, I'm just gonna get through it. That's my job." And if upper level management is pushing that, and, "You must be here on January 12th, and you must be here on February 2nd. And if you're not, then you're gonna get in trouble, right?" Well, you're not really caring about the product of learning at all, right? Your job is just to get through it.

 

0:19:49.0 AS: And how does this differ from, let's say another... I don't know if you would call it an aim or not, but there's a final assignment in my valuation masterclass boot camp, which is that you've gotta do a complete valuation of a company, submit it and then present it. And that's the final... If they can't do that, they don't graduate. What's the difference between that final assignment versus me talking about transformation, not information?

 

0:20:18.0 DL: Well, I think what you're saying is really good, but I'd wanna look at my statistical data, the variation of that class, and if 40% of the students can't do that, there's something wrong with my process, right? So I've gotta spend extra time with these students and get them caught up and get... Because they weren't able to do that. And then I wanna take the feedback that I get now, apply it in the systems thinking can to my next master class and say, "Okay, how do I prevent the very problems that I had before?" And it's actually pretty easy to track until you get down to maybe only one student is not able to do that at the end of the master class. And then you lower the variation even more, so only one student every three years doesn't make it, right? Because I'm so good at dealing with special causes, issues, setting this up in the beginning, and talking about the aim, et cetera, that I've lowered the variation until it's just very, very rare. And that's really a special cause.

 

0:21:38.4 AS: Yeah. Well, we have cases...

 

0:21:38.4 DL: You have to visit a specialist.

 

0:21:40.2 AS: Where someone's gotten sick, or something in there.

 

0:21:42.4 DL: Of course.

 

0:21:42.6 AS: But I just to follow up on that, what I was noticing in my first couple of the... We're now on the seventh iteration, and in my first couple ones, I realized these final reports are not that great, because what's happening is, I'm overloading them with information for the first four weeks. And then in the last two weeks, I'm saying, "Now, finish this report." So I work with the team, and I said, "Why don't we assign them the company they're gonna value six weeks from now, on day one, number one. Number two is, the students were complaining there wasn't enough feedback, so why don't we break the assignments down week by week, and we're gonna tell 'em what they gotta get done by Friday, and then we have feedback Friday, where one member of their team presents that. And then, we give them feedback on it, and all of a sudden we're starting to build towards this final report week by week, and I just realized I should have been doing this all along as we go through this iteration, so it's a good reminder.

 

0:22:43.7 DL: Yeah. But you learned, and you listened to the students and they said, "Oh, we gotta have this kind of feedback all the way through." Okay, well, that means you as the manager, you have to make an adjustment in the system and the process of what you're doing, and then it's a PDSA cycle, right? You try one class and you say, "Okay, I'm gonna make this adjustment, and I'm gonna look at the data now and compare it to the data before and see, did it work? If it did, I'm gonna do this with all my classes, because I found out something that's making a huge difference for people through that process, so...

 

0:23:17.1 AS: Yeah. And the feedback was hard to get, David, when I could see the problem, the students talked about the problem that they were overwhelmed, and but what the answer to that was, was that, "Oh, man, they are asking for one-on-one feedback, and how can I do that with 100 students, with 500 students?" And then, the point is, is that once you raise the problem, then it opens your mind to think, "How could we solve it?" And my solution was, "Well, wait a minute. That they're making the same mistakes a lot of cases, so if we just create feedback Friday, we tell them, "You are getting feedback," and then we focus in on a small number of them, but let them all observe and then we accomplish the same thing that they wanted, but they wanted it in one-on-one, which wasn't scalable for us, which would have been difficult. So getting the information back, that's a bit painful, and I'm like, "I can't do that," but being aware of it then allowed us to come up with some alternative. So yeah.

 

0:24:19.1 DL: Because I don't know how many times I heard Dr. Deming say at seminars, "It's not the answer that's important, it's the question. And do you have that right?" So when you start asking the question, "Well, how do I do this with 100 students?" Okay. Well, now you're asking the right question. Right? And there's always a way. There's always a method. But instead of saying, "Oh, I can't do that, it's not possible. I don't have time for that." Well, okay, then it's never gonna happen then, is it?

 

0:24:49.3 AS: David, is that what my mom meant...

 

0:24:49.7 DL: But as soon as ypu start asking the right...

 

0:24:51.3 AS: When she said, "You're jumping to conclusions?"

 

0:24:53.1 DL: Yeah. As soon as you start asking the right question, then you'll start to solve the real problem. So I wanted to get to the third sentence here before we run out of time. There's a lot in just this one...

 

0:25:06.2 AS: It's amazing.

 

0:25:06.5 DL: Point he makes. But he says, Dr. Deming wasn't into all the pronouns and everything that we use today. We always just used he, so, but he says, "He teaches his people to understand how the work of the group supports these aims." Ah. So I've got this group of students, right, and so I've explained to them what a system is, and that we are a system, and we work to develop an aim for that system. Okay, now I have to optimize these people working together to achieve that aim, right? I remember when I first started, I couldn't get rid of just grading kids, and keep my job, I still had to... So I had to figure out, "Well, how do I do that within a grading system, even though Deming says we should get rid of the grading system. And so, when I started talking to students, I said, "What would be the aim here?" And somebody said, "Well, our aim should be that everybody in the whole class would get an A." And I was just shocked, because at that point, that never happened in my history.

 

0:26:23.0 DL: Well, and partly the reasons that it was never gonna happen, was a huge part me purposely was doing things to make sure that everybody wasn't achieving at a high level, and then that sounds just like heresy, but most of education is built on that. I can guarantee you, especially like a high school teacher, if suddenly all of your kids are getting As and you're turning in your grades and everybody's got an A...

 

0:26:49.5 AS: You're in trouble.

 

0:26:50.2 DL: Yeah, you're not gonna get an award. [laughter] You're gonna get visited, alright.

 

0:26:56.8 AS: The statistics guy will come down and say, "No, this is impossible."

 

0:27:00.1 DL: Yeah, the principal, or the superintendent, or, "You're destroying the whole grading system," all those kinds of things will come into play, but in reality, you should be having that person teach all the other teachers, what are they doing? What are you doing? And we're not talking about just giving them As just for the sake of giving them As. But they've established a system that almost everyone always get... Does A level work. Well, you're gonna have to do what Deming talks in this third sentence about how the work of the group supports these aims, so how do we work together as a class to support each other, so everybody can get there? That's totally different than the stereotypical classroom where I say, "Sit down, don't talk, don't talk to your neighbor. If you talk out loud, you're gonna get points taken off your grade," and those kinds of things. That's much different when I say, "Hey, we need to all work together." And so what happens if somebody struggles, or takes a little longer? Or what could we do to support them? That's a whole different kind of a way to think.

 

0:28:20.2 AS: Ah. There's so much to that, and the idea too, that sometimes teachers, and maybe managers in companies are really busy, and so they feel like, "I just don't have time to explain all of this." And so they end up leaving either employees, or students in the dark knowing that it is a little bit like driving in the foggy conditions. All the students see is ruts right in front of them, they're not seeing the aim. And as a result, they really... It's just a routine. "Just go in and do whatever they say, because we don't really know where we're going."

 

0:29:02.1 DL: Right. So we use the example of a classroom as a system here today, but whatever level of a system you are, if you're a principal, oh, well, your system is the whole school, right? If you're superintendent, your systems the whole district, or whoever you are he's talking about, your job is to do the same thing. Are you explaining to everybody in the entire organization what the system is, number one, and does it have an aim, and how can we work together to optimize this aim for the whole system? And I remember talking to a major CEO of a huge multi-international corporation, and that she was... Had worked with Deming also, and I said, "Well, how do you go about that?" She said, "Every single year, at the beginning of the year, I do 10 days of training with all managers worldwide." I thought, "Holy cow." [chuckle] That's huge, right? And who's doing the training? She is, the CEO, because she wants it coming directly from her, "This is our job, this is our aim, and our job is to optimize the system."

 

0:30:20.7 DL: And she didn't just do it once and then go back to her office. She said, "No, every year I've got new managers, and I've got new people come on board and we have new levels of discussion and new depth to take it to." Well, it's the same thing in a classroom, right? I'm better and better, I get faster and faster at setting the aim with this group of students. I get better and better coming up with metaphors of how to explain a system, even to preschool kids, or... And I get better and better at coaching people to support each other and help each other to achieve the overall aim. And then I use my statistics to see "Is it working? Am I actually getting better at that?"

 

0:31:08.2 AS: I was just thinking kind of a little bit of an inspirational thing, is to tell students that, "The aim here is to figure out the best way to get to where we're going for the benefit of the next class, the next group of students. And how could we take the way I'm explaining this particular subject and improve upon it so that the next group gets it even better? What an inspirational thing. So...

 

0:31:41.8 DL: Yeah, I remember a teacher that really took this to heart, and so what she would do is, she would take next year's students that she was going to have, and she'd have them come to a sort of a field trip to her class this year, and have her current students explain how we do things here, and what we do and everything. Now she's going upstream in the process in the system, and so kids were actually anticipating, "Hey, when we get to her class, oh, we have to do this, and we have to think like this." And then she had... She went to students that had left her class and asked them, "How did I do? Did you have the kind of learning that you needed for the next stage in that class," and then she used that feedback to change the system that she's in now, so...

 

0:32:31.9 AS: And that also makes you think about the wider system of a school, where there's a connection between the curriculum so that people see like, "Okay, there's a reason why our teacher, Mr. Tyler, that taught me pre-algebra, made me underline and write out each step in the solving of that algebra equation, because he knew I was gonna need it in the next level."

 

0:33:00.6 DL: Yeah, very good.

 

0:33:03.5 AS: So shall we wrap up?

 

0:33:05.5 DL: Yes.

 

0:33:07.3 AS: Okay. So just to wrap up for the listeners and the viewers out there, we're talking about... We're just kicking off a series on the role of a manager in education, and it's based upon Dr. Deming's writing in "The New Economics," in the Third Edition, it starts on page 86. And in the Second Edition, it starts on page 125. And the title of his list of 14 things is, "Role of a Manager of People. This is the new role of a manager of people after transformation." And just to review some of the things that we went through with that just first point, the first thing that we had talked about, is that classroom teacher is a manager of people ultimately, and we talked about three things that come out of that. The first thing that comes out of this first point is, you wanna teach what is the meaning of a system? The inputs, the process, the output, you've gotta start with that. If people don't understand that they're operating within a system, then they can't make the progress. Remember that students, as you've said, David, are not products, they're not inanimate objects, the product is actually the learning itself, and so the objective is to manage to optimize that learning process.

 

0:34:23.8 AS: The second thing that we talked about was that people need to understand what is the aim of the system? Okay, fine, it's good enough that we need to understand that things work as a system, but what are we aiming for? And you propose, "Well, maybe highest number of students to the highest level in the time that we have." So once people understand the aim, they understand where we're going, and then it brings the third part of this one, which is, so how does the work of the group support the aim? And I would say that this is part of the concept that Dr. Deming talked about, about bringing meaning to work, bringing the value to work that you have a role in this, and that is to get to that aim, so we have a common mission, a common goal, and we're working towards that, and that's an environment that I think everybody wants to either work in, in a school environment, or in a work environment. Is there anything you would add to that wrap up?

 

0:35:20.1 DL: Well, there's these phrases like joy in work that Deming talked about and joy in learning. How do you get there? Well, here you go, here's the first step. [chuckle] Because when I understand my job in that system, and my job is to help other people also achieve, I have joy in what I do. My relationships can flourish, right? I can share information, I could support other people, and that's really part of the human condition, and it makes it actually fun to go to school.

 

0:35:55.9 AS: Well, what a great way to end that discussion, fun to go to school. David, on behalf of everyone at the Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for this discussion. And for listeners, remember to go to Deming.org to continue your journey, and we are talking about "The New Economics," so you can get that on Amazon, just go to amazon.com and download it, or buy the hard cover. And listeners can learn more about David at langfordlearning.com. This is your host, Andrew Stotz. And I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming and this discussion today kind of explains where it comes from, "People are entitled to joy in work.”