Sunday, 21 May 2017


By V K Talithaya

ROBERT M PIRSIG (Sept 6, 1928 - April 24, 2017)

Management and Philosophy do not blend easily. Their concerns are as far apart as T-Twenty and Test cricket, the one focused on quick action and immediate result and the other on patience, meditation and artful action. If, however, there is one aspect of concern to both, Management and Philosophy, it is Quality. Robert M Pirsig, the redoubtable philosopher, who died on April 24, 2017, was on a challenging and exacting journey of discovery of the definition of Quality. His formidable book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is a journey through the weird land of philosophy in search of this definition. His unflagging quest takes us far beyond the mundane world of management thoughts such as - Quality is what the customer wants, or the famous Japanese formulation: Quality is customer delight. Early in the book, differentiating between the world of physical forms and the world of ideas which created the physical forms, Pirsig says, "...we are at the classic-romantic barrier now, where on one side we see a cycle as it appears immediately - and this is an important way of seeing it - and where on the other side we can begin seeing it as a mechanic does in terms of underlying form - and this is an important way of seeing things too.." Is Quality something we see on the thing, the motorcycle, in this case, or is it in the concept or the idea of motorcycle? Does Quality go along with the motorcycle which is dispatched from the shop-floor? Or does it still remain with the creators of the products, notwithstanding the product having gone to the customer, and the customer being satisfied? Take a step back, and think of it - the product you have sent to the customer is neither fragments of steel assembled to some shape like a motorcycle, nor is it some codes and signs put together as a software - it is primarily ideas. The motorcycle is made of steel. But where steel comes from? and from where ore comes? Eventually everything originates with idea. So, have you dispatched ideas to your customers? 
Does it mean that when idea meets the material Quality occurs? That is a tentative position Pirsig takes. Still, he cannot say what Quality is. He ponders,"...if you can't say what Quality is, how do you what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all". Yet, Pirsig has no doubt that there is Quality. He says,"I think there is such a thing as Quality, but that as soon as you try to define it, something goes haywire. You can't do it...Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognised by a nonthinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, Quality cannot be defined". Thus, Pirsig comes to the conclusion that Quality is neither amenable to scientific inquiry nor to rigid formal thinking.
For Pirsig, the real purpose of scientific method is to make sure that Nature has not misled you to thinking that you know something you actually do not know. Having got stuck with the limitation of scientific method, he explores lateral knowledge, that is knowledge from unexpected direction. Study of scientific method by science destroys the validity of its answers. In science objectivity is all important. Pirsig believed that if subjectivity is eliminated as unimportant the entire body of science must be eliminated with it. Therefore, he changes tack to philosophy, particularly that branch of philosophy called Realism which says,"A thing exists if a world without it can't function normally". There are around us a number of phenomena which we cannot define clearly, yet their absence will not allow our society to function normally. Morality, beauty, honesty are some of the terms that do not allow clear definition. Philosophers have have quarrelled over their meaning and written treatises, but we still do not know what they are. Yet, we know our society will not be what it is without any of them. Similarly,"The world can function without Quality, but life would be so dull as to be hardly worth living. In fact it wouldn't be worth living. The word worth is a Quality term". 
For Pirsig, the world is composed of three things - mind, matter and Quality. Quality cannot be defined. Quality is not a thing, it is an event. But real understanding of Quality captures the system, harnesses it to work for fulfilling one's own purposes and one's 'inner destiny'. People's purposes are different, their 'inner destinies' are different. They are different in terms of their experiences. That is why they differ about Quality. To put Quality in one box is futile. Howard Roark, the inscrutable architect in Ayn Rand's famous novel, Fountainhead, refuses to follow any architectural tradition, not because he had an swollen ego, but because Quality for him was what helped him to achieve his 'inner destiny'. Tradition is system, and when you follow the system it loves you, and you lose your unique identity. "Quality is the response of an organism to its environment...It is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live". That is exactly what Howard Roark does. Not for him the work to please and get approvals and endorsements from devious art and design critics like Ellsworth Toohey.     
Pirsig says Quality is scientific reality. Quality is also the goal of art. We are used to assign Quality to subjects and objects. We do not look at Quality as the event which is the relation between what we create and the thing we create. "The real ugliness lies in the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use...At the moment of pure Quality, subject and object are identical. This is the Tat tvan asi (Thou art That) truth of the Upanishads".  
What is the message in all this to managers? They can be summed up as:
1. Quality is not a thing or a feature you put into a product.
2. Quality is the event or the process of one's involvement in creating the thing or the idea, be it a technology, a product or a software.
3. Quality is also the event or process of one's involvement while interfacing with the thing - the technology, product, software - while one uses them.
4. Quality is an internal process in individuals. Only when one identifies oneself with one's task or the product being created or used Quality is possible.  
5. Managers have the onerous task of creating the environment in their organisations which enables this involvement, this identification of the self with what employees do, create and use.    
By V K Talithaya     
On 5/21/2017


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