Variation—it is natural, cannot be eliminated, but it can be controlled

We like variation.

At the same time, we like consistency.

Can you have both?

Variation exists in everything.

Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws. She hums the old well-known air through innumerable variations.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I remember moments early in my career as an educator, fighting variation. Wanting all the student papers to look the same, all the assignments completed the same; I certainly wanted all of the work turned in on time in the red folder next to the door.

Fortunately, in all of my reading and experiences, I let go of that notion.  Slowly, I began to see variation as a way of life, not as an excuse for sloppy or inefficient processes.

Without knowing the details and without any knowledge of Deming’s Theory of Profound Knowledge or Six Sigma, I had put many of the concepts of variation into practice. However, I wish I had known then what I know now—my, often, on-going lament.

Once I began to understand the elements and the impact of variation – good and bad – in the workplace, at home, everywhere I went – I started to see the world differently.

Have you ever worked in an organization where uniformity and consistency surpassed common sense? A place that tolerated no variation? 

A tale of two commas

I majored in English, and I still love everything related to grammar. 

I know—that is just really weird, but it is important contextual information to understand the following example.

I will never forget the day I received a phone call to meet with the Vice President. She had a reputation for shredding your writing, and our department sent out a ton of communication each week.

The problem had become so severe that my director put me in charge of reviewing and editing every correspondence from all the staff members in our department. After all, I was the one with a degree in English.

That may not sound like a bad approach, but my colleagues, all well-educated, resented one more step and the perceived micromanaging. I wasn’t excited about the new task, either. But the issue had reached the point that the VP threatened to require all written documents to go through her office.

That was already happening as part of the bureaucracy, but this was an entirely different scrutiny level. Should there be a format for external correspondence? Probably so.

There I sat in front of the VP as she handed me the document in question. I looked down and saw two circled commas. No red marks. No “EDIT BEFORE SUBMITTING” in bright red. Just two commas—circled in red.

Now we’re not talking about major grammatical flaws, misspellings, or even faulty sentence structure. We’re talking about commas. 

The punctuation gurus have placed some guidelines around commas, but there is considerable disagreement on their use, such as in separating a sequence of items. Is it the bananas, oranges, and watermelon? Or, is it the bananas, oranges and watermelons? Does anyone really care?

Ms. VP did not like the Oxford comma. I used it twice in the offensive memo.

Understand the purpose of variation

I experienced how demeaning and detrimental an irrational focus on conformity can be and how it can stifle all creativity and autonomy. 

Micromanaging and designing processes without understanding variation expends excessive amounts of energy on the least 20 percent. Then, we lose complete sight of 80 percent of the most critical and important components of the work.

We must accept and determine the level and extent of variation most appropriate for any process to ensure that customers receive the product or service they expect. This does not mean that we settle for mediocrity, but it does mean that we must consider the role of variation. How it can enhance or undermine quality and excellence.

Should we debate and agonize the appropriate (which is a moving target) placement of the elusive comma?

Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone — those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river; the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us — a chasm whose depths we cannot see. — Marcus Aurelius

What variation are you allowing or demanding that places obstacles rather than pathways to becoming your best?

And always—

Be kind. Be brave. Be you.

Photo: © Kathryn LeRoy