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Bandwidth and ego

Last week, we held a discussion in class in the Quality Engineering course program, while answering questions in preparation for the ICQE exam. A student has asked me whether I truly thought that not all knowledge is always helpful. I replied that indeed this was so. Moreover, it is my belief that sometimes, certain knowledge may not only be unhelpful but even harmful and this has a direct connection to what I call bandwidth.

Being well aware that an answer such as this may result in a storm of protests, I had to elaborate and thoroughly explain and base my meaning. 

I firmly believe that this particular subject is of great importance to Quality Assurance engineers and managers. Therefore, I have chosen to open the discussion here in my blog, and bring the basis for my above statement. This for the benefit of those who are not counted, in the past, present or future, among my students and were not exposed, perhaps, to the considerations I bring below.

Illustration: cooperation - bandwidth

Quality Assurance profession type

We all know, that Quality Assurance engineer is not really required to be an expert in the field and technology of the industry in which he works. For instance, I am an Aerospace engineer by education, but I have never chosen to work in that industry as QA engineer. I have worked in industries such as cellular and mobile phone antennae manufacturing;  medical device development; electronics manufacturing. I have worked with and consulted companies in metal, plastics, medical, food, optics and other industries. Never have I felt that my lack of expertise in the industry is an encumbrance, a difficulty. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Why is that so?

Because Quality Assurance differs in its very essence from most other professions. It is not a depth profession, like most the disciplines in the organization, but a width profession. I have already described that idea in the article Connecting the Dots, which you may find interesting to read.

People connecting pieces into a whole picture

In our day, most professions demand, due to various reasons to do with the history of their development, to narrow the field of expertise more and more. Take, for example, medical professions, engineers, lawyers etc. Their field of expertise narrows more and more, and at the same time the level of expertise rises, which means they dig deeper and deeper into their chosen field. I call them “depth professions”.

Quality Assurance is one of the few professions, which are in their very essence wide: that is, they do not require digging ever deeper in one specific field, but spreading out over many various fields at a certain desirable level.

In addition, the function of Quality Assurance is organizational, which means guidance for everybody, or – leadership. The Quality Assurance engineer cannot possibly manage to be an expert in all the disciplines present in an organization. But the thing is, he has no need to! He has at his disposal experts in every discipline, those same people he is leading. And his job is to help them pour their knowledge into one common pool of resources, connect it into a single clear picture and reflect the wide picture back to everybody. Thus, the entire process becomes clear to all members of the team – to create synergy, that potential for breakthrough which would take them all to the next level.

I call all these pieces of the entire picture each of us brings to the common table “bandwidth”.

Any bandwidth is limited

By definition, bandwidth is the amount of information passing through a certain range. And this is exactly what it is. The information each has is limited. Therefore, it would simply be impossible for each of us to see the whole picture. The probability for it runs to zero.

What limits it? Our narrow field of expertise, our background, our life experience, which are all different for each of us. The culture we come from, our ability for freethinking, special talents etc. Hence, that which one can see with great clarity – another will not see at all, or only partially. Perhaps this picture may somewhat demonstrate our ability to see parts of the entire, wide, cosmic whole. Assume that the information one person has is the yellow patches, another – the orange ones, yet another – the black… I did not continue coloring, trusting that you get it…

In order to improve processes, we must first understand them. If each of us would focus only on what he sees inside his own limited bandwidth – the solution we may find shall be partial, at best. I would like to clarify, once more, that the word “limited” carries no negative association at all. it merely indicates the existence of a limit.

Naturally, a probability exists that we stumble upon the correct solution entirely by chance. But this would mean the solution would be random, whereas we seek industrial solutions. Those we shall be able to reproduce, predict and base. Random doesn’t cut it.

Illustration: bandwidth

OK, limited, got it. So how and why can knowledge be harmful?

I have begun from the idea that QA engineer is not required to have solid (or any) background in the industry in which he works. They shall acquire the necessary basic understanding along the way. Standards and industry-specific requirements are a simple enough matter of expanding the knowledge base, no need to spend a lot of thought on that.

What happens when a Quality Assurance engineer works in an industry he really understands? For example, an Electronics engineer by education, an expert in one of the fields, experienced working as electronics engineer. He now works as Quality Assurance in electronics manufacturing industry…

Ah, that’s where we hit the problem. Such a combination may prove truly harmful for the entire team, the entire organization, in several areas.

Wide view vs the narrow and deep telescopic view
Wide view vs the narrow and deep telescopic view

Conflicting ways of thinking

First, let’s recall professional depth. Engineering professions demand from the people to delve deep into a narrow field of expertise. They are depth professions. This means that our engineer is a depth professional, not a width professional. To switch from depth to width profession, his entire thinking process must shift, changing many habits, understandings and beliefs. It is not easy to do, and one cannot be a depth professional and a width professional at the same time. These are two conflicting approaches and ways of thinking.

I spend a great deal of time and effort during the Quality Assurance courses teaching the way I do. I focus on changing the students’ understanding and thinking process, in order to create in them the beginnings of a width approach and ability.

Developing the required personal traits

The second and no less important consideration is the level of the Quality Assurance engineer as a person and a leader – his personal development.

What do I mean?

As stated above, our main job is collecting the pieces of information from each member of the multi-disciplinary team and connecting them into a single wide picture. This we reflect back to the team, to locate the places of weakness in the process and find a proper solution. However, one of the first things this requires from us is eliminating our ego. In other words, focus not on what we know, but what the others know.

That is because we are the ones who know and understand the bandwidth matter. That is, we understand that the information each member of the team has is limited. Therefore, first and foremost, the information we, as Quality Assurance engineers, have. Hence, we must strive to avoid putting our own information in any central place. Instead, just keep it at the ready to complete the picture, in case it is not covered by information from someone else, first.

Thus said the Sages.
Quotes by people worth heeding:

An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so.

— Mahatma Gandhi
Illustration: a team and a team leader

The team first, myself later

Naturally, I must clarify, that there are times when having such information may, in fact, be helpful. Especially if you are the only team member who has it within his bandwidth. In other words, if this particular field is only a part of your own expertise, and not of others. In such a case, that information would complete the picture for everybody, and would surely not be harmful. However, we must not offer it until the very end, when the whole picture is about to become clear for all. That is the time to seek solutions – and not in the beginning, before we started to spread the process for everyone.

There is a very important reason for that. The QA engineer is the team leader, a leader, an member of the wider management placed high up the organizational hierarchy. This means, the word of a Quality engineer carries a lot of authority. If he speaks his mind before all the others had a chance to, there is a high probability the others will not speak theirs. The Quality engineer’s words would remain the only information you have, no wide picture of the process shall be built.

There would be those reluctant to speak, so as not to sound ridiculous. Or because they fear it’s irrelevant, for the reason has already been stated (he is the only one with the specific information, remember?). The direct result would be failure to discover the real problem and find the true solution. This shall make things worse, create a feeling of working at “full gas in neutral”, frustration and anger of those who did not speak… Damaging the entire organization.

Listening with the intent to understand

In his renowned book The 7 habits of highly effective people, Stephen Covey talks about the importance of listening with the intent to understand. Most of us, sadly, listen with the intent to reply.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? When a person speaks and you are, at the same time, formulating your answer to him in your mind? At that moment, you are not really listening to him but to yourself. You are just waiting for a pause in his speech to insert your reply.

Stephen Covey says, listen, truly, out of intent to understand what the person is trying to tell you. Because if you truly understand him, there really will be no need to prepare your reply ahead of time. Perhaps you shall have a question, or you might see that no reply is necessary. It may even become apparent that what the person is really saying is the complete opposite of what you originally thought. After all, you didn’t truly listen to him before.

Illustration: listen with the intent to understand

It is not easy or simple to stay silent when you know something. One must understand why to stay silent and maintain it as a principle. As one of my students, so rightly, commented: “I have a feeling that you are not a person who finds being silent an easy task”. That’s right, I am not. And I have erred in this plenty of times, before I have myself come to understand this mechanism. One of the reasons I know that information may sometimes me harmful.

When one is certain of one’s solid knowledge and expertise in some field, one operates out of one’s own, limited, bandwidth. One would bring this knowledge forth and insist on it correctness. One would base on it the solution of the problem at hand. And most of all – one would prevent from all the team members the completion of the whole picture, by giving the solution well before its due time. Before the entire process is spread for everybody in one single picture.

Illustration: ego

The ego attempts to take control

What happens when I use my knowledge out of certainty that I know and that I am right?

It is the ego, which speaks for me. I know! I am right! My knowledge is the important thing here! Listen to what I have to say! Can you hear the “me” who so desperately wants to be heard? That is the ego; it wants to control you, as it is programmed to do. And while it has its time and place – they are not here and now. The completing of the entire picture is precisely the process where the “me” has no central place. It must be made to humbly stand aside and be quiet.

Otherwise, even if I listen to what the other members of the team are saying, I do not listen with the intent to understand, but out of my one need to reply. To insert my own knowledge into the picture. To build up my own authority on the subject. I may even wait, but not understand, for my focus is on what I want to say, and not on the others.

Using my information is such a ways is harmful for the whole team. It damages the ability to find a good solution, based on the entire picture. It limits the common information resource. It shifts the point of view of the whole picture – for everyone. It steals from all the other team members the possibility to find and suggest ideas inspired by seeing the whole picture.

This is why, sometimes, knowledge may be harmful. If the person using it has still to reach a high enough level of awareness to put aside his own ego and bandwidth. To allow the team to see the widest and most complete picture of the process, before suggesting solutions.

And what about you? Does your ego support a narrow bandwidth, or are you able to put it aside in order to allow the bandwidth to expand? If not, this is a question worth thinking about. The fruits of your efforts shall be sweet.

Picture of space: the farthest galaxy scientists managed to see. Image taken from article at the Space.com website.
Picture of the conversation: Image taken from “Lovelorn Poets” website. I was unsuccessful in finding the artist, would be delighted to add if you know who he is.

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