"'Gumptionology 101 - An examination of affective, cognitive and psychomotor blocks in the perception of Quality relationships - 3 cr, VII, MWF.' I'd like to see that in a college catalog somewhere."
[Robert M. Pirsig, in 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance']
In his own way, Robert Pirsig was one of the forerunners of the modern quality-movement, particularly TQM. It's certainly true that his extraordinary book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, first published in 1974, opened up what was, for that time, a revolutionary new understanding of 'Quality'. Yet, as he himself insisted, his usage of the word was in no way new - yet its true meaning, and true value, had become forgotten during centuries of neglect. Elsewhere in the book, he revives another old word - 'gumption' - and shows its practical use in the technology - and business - of today:
I like the word 'gumption' because it's so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn't likely to reject anyone who comes along. I like it also because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption.
As the book's title suggests, Pirsig's main example is motorcycle maintenance, but exactly the same principles apply to the solution of business problems as well as technical ones:
If you're going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool. If you haven't got that you might as well gather up all the other tools and put them away, because they won't do you any good.
Each individual task has its own detail, such as should be described in workshop manuals, or the procedures and work-instructions required by ISO-9000 and the like. However:
There's another kind of detail that no shop manual goes into but that is common to all machines. This is the detail of the Quality relationship, the gumption relationship, between the machine and the mechanic, which is just as intricate as the machine itself. Throughout the process of fixing up the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined 'irreplaceable' assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things 'gumption traps'.
And exactly the same is true for business, of course.
In traditional maintenance gumption is considered something you're born with or have acquired as a result of good upbringing. It's a fixed commodity. From the lack of information about how one acquires this gumption one might assume that a person without any gumption is a hopeless case.
In this, Pirsig's concept of 'gumption' closely resembles an understanding of power not as a 'fixed commodity' to be fought over, but as something personal and variable - a kind of 'power-from-within' which can vary greatly dependent on both external and 'inner' conditions.
As far as I can see there are two main types of gumption traps. The first type is those in which you're thrown off the Quality track by conditions that arise from external circumstances, and I call those 'setbacks'. The second type is traps in which you're thrown off the Quality track by conditions that are primarily within yourself. These I don't have any generic name for - 'hang-ups', I suppose.
Most of the setbacks can be addressed through appropriate training and well-designed procedures; but the 'hang-ups' can be much more difficult, simply because they are personal:
As the course description of gumptionology indicated, this internal part of the field can be broken down into three main types of internal gumption traps: those that block affective understanding, called 'value traps'; those that block cognitive understanding, called 'truth traps'; and those that block psychomotor behavior, called 'muscle traps'. The value traps are by far the largest and most dangerous group.
We don't have to look far to see the same problem in business: history shows that it doesn't take long for rigid values, fixed attitudes and incorrect assumptions to destroy even the largest of corporations...
The typical situation is that the motorcycle doesn't work. [And then] you're stuck ... The facts are there but you don't see them. You're looking right at them, but they don't yet have enough value. [In effect,] the facts do not exist until value has created them. If your values are rigid you can't really learn new facts.
Pirsig warns that it's easy to get lost in such a mass of facts that it's impossible to make any sense of them - a problem that's becoming more, rather than less, acute for business as the data-gathering power of information technology increases. The way out is through a different understanding of quality:
The overwhelming majority of facts, the sights and sounds that are around us every second and the relationships among them and everything in our memory - these have no Quality, in fact have a negative quality. If they were all present at once our consciousness would be so jammed with meaningless data we couldn't think or act. So we preselect on the basis of Quality, or, to put it [another] way, the track of Quality preselects what data we're going to be conscious of, and it makes this selection in such a way as to best harmonize what we are with what we are becoming.
Although it's a strange book in many ways, 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' is well worth reading for anyone concerned with quality-management, especially as Pirsig goes into a lot more detail - practical detail - about a wide range of other set-backs and 'hang-ups'. The extracts above came from pp.305-312 of an early edition: page-numbers are likely to differ slightly in the current editions.