Lessons on quality and continuous improvement from Star Trek

Gene Rogers

I love Star Trek – and not just the original series. I love Star Trek Next Generation, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Star Trek Voyager, Star Trek Enterprise, all the Star Trek movies, (well, except for one) and just about everything else related to, or has anything to do with, Star Trek.

Yes, I went to the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas and yes, I do own the entire series on DVD. No, I don’t own a Star Trek costume – yet.

With a 40-year history and over 700 hours of content from six television series & eleven movies, Star Trek is an entertainment and pop culture icon. With its visionary philosophy and thrill for adventure, the Star Trek universe only continues to broaden into new territories.

Continuous improvement….to boldly go where no man has gone before….(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

TV Guide Magazine lists Star Trek as the #1 Cult Series of All-Time. Time Magazine says Star Trek is the top TV show of all-time and Nielsen counts 82 Million current viewers. Regardless of your TV-watching taste, science-fiction fan or not, there are some valuable lessons we can learn from the adventures of the Enterprise Crew, because nothing speaks to the future quite like Star Trek!

Here are a few "futuristic" inventions that were seen on Star Trek that are now part of reality: Flip phones, talking computers, wide screen displays (Captain says, "On-screen"), automatic doors, eBooks, iPads, and Anti-matter. (By-the-way, a quick piece of trivia: the voice of the computer is Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett. She also played Nurse Chapel in the original Star Trek series and played Lwaxana Troi on Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.)

Aside from technology we can also use Star Trek to demonstrate for us a few "futuristic" organizational items i.e. management systems, negotiating, and team engagement. Today we will be talking about information sharing. Not by the crew of Star Trek, but by one of its deadliest foes. The BORG.

In essence, this post will discuss the collective mind of the BORG; how you can take that idea and applied it to your operational environment, and, hopefully, begin to establish a culture of transparency, one where everyone can see and understand what is going on inside your business.

So, who are the BORG and why should I care? The BORG are a race of cybernetics, meaning they are part technology and part biology. But who they are is not as important as what they represent. The BORG represent the perfect embodiment of a continuously improving organization. The BORG think collectively, act collectively, in essence, the BORG are a collective consciousness.

In addition to thinking collectively, the BORG exhibit several other enviable attributes:

  • They can rapidly adapt to any situation
  • They can recognize a threat and react quickly
  • They recognize distinctive characteristics , and
  • They are constantly in pursuit of perfection

It would serve us well to nurture these attributes.

Anything "relevant" that each BORG see, hear, touch and feel is shared with all the other BORG. So, what is "relevant"? How do they know what to share? Because the BORG are linked to together, they share a common understanding of what is important to their success. (The BORG define success as "perfection")

If the BORG were a company they would be almost perfect. Picture it; everyone knows the vision, the mission, and the core values. Everyone knows what is expected of them. Everyone knows how their daily tasks relate to the success of the organization. Decisions are made for the good of the entire organization. There are no silos; no "kingdom building". Moral is high. Turnover is low. Customers love them. Competitors fear them. Talented people want to work for them. Ah….life would be so good – for them.

It’s a good thing that the BORG are not a real company because we would find our collective selves out of business! In a real company, the vision is in a PowerPoint slide somewhere. The mission statement is on the wall in a conference room. No one, except for managers, at review time, discuss the core values. Very few employees know how their job relates directly to the success of the company. Decisions are made in silos. Mini "kingdoms" are built everywhere. Moral is a roller coaster. Turnover is increasing. Customers have no loyalty. Finding good talent is hard.

How then, does a real company emulate the BORG’s ability share information that is critical to success and why do we need to develop a collective consciousness? We need a collective consciousness because without it any responses to changing circumstances will be ad hoc at best, totally uncoordinated and unproductive at worst.

So, how do you bring order to chaos and create a collective mind? Since we don’t have cybernetic implants we have to rely on other means. Creating a "collective consciousness" has three prerequisites; language, vehicle, and platform. The first necessary item is a common language. A common language provides us the capability for understanding. Secondly, we need a vehicle for sharing that understanding with others. Lastly, we need a platform to facilitate discussion and learning. As an example, let’s look at "the golden disc".

Voyager 1's Golden Record (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 spacecraft, whose primary mission was the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn. Aboard the spacecraft NASA placed an earth time-capsule called the Golden Disc. The purpose of the disc is to communicate with ET, should ET encounter the spacecraft.

Here is a summary of what is on the disc. In the upper left-hand corner is an easily recognized drawing of the phonograph record and the stylus carried with it. The stylus is in the correct position to play the record from the beginning. Written around it in binary arithmetic is the correct time of one rotation of the record. The drawing indicates that the record should be played from the outside in. Below this drawing is a side view of the record and stylus, with a binary number giving the time to play one side of the record – about an hour.

The information in the upper right-hand portion of the cover is designed to show how pictures are to be constructed from the recorded signals. A circle was used in this picture to insure that the recipients use the correct ratio of horizontal to vertical height in picture reconstruction.

The drawing in the lower left-hand corner of the cover is the pulsar map previously sent as part of the plaques on Pioneers 10 and 11. It shows the location of our solar system with respect to the 14 pulsars. In other words, this is the GPS location of earth. There is a lot more information encoded into this disk. You can learn more on the web at http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/goldenrec.html.

What can we learn from the Golden Disc? How are the BORG and the Golden Disc connected? Well, the most brilliant minds of our time are attempting to transmit information about us, to someone or something else. In essence, we want to bring ET into our collective.

What did the most learned minds on earth use to communicate? The language they used is MATH. The vehicle is Golden Disk. The platform: PICTURES.

What do you get when you combine MATH and PICTURES? You guessed it, charts, dashboards, and scorecards. That’s right; all this discussion about space, Star Trek, and the BORG is to demonstrate the value of creating a collective conscienceless using charts and dashboards.

It’s important to understand, however, that the magic in making charts work as your collective consciousness is not in the displaying of the chart, anyone can do that. The magic is in the transparent creation of the chart and the understanding of what can make the chart change.

Think of a car. Everyone knows how to make it go faster; push on the gas. Everyone knows how to make it stop; push on the brake. In similar fashion, business charts let everyone know when to go faster and when to go slower. The hard part is letting everyone know where the gas pedal is and where the brake is.

This is why transparency is so critical. Transparency in the sense that everyone knows what the chart means (should we go faster or slower), how the numbers that make the chart are calculated (which pedal to push), and how their individual actions make the numbers change (how hard to push the pedal). In a large organization, the effort to create, educate, and initiate a good set of charts (i.e. key performance indicators) can take time. However, the length of time to achieve transparency is less important than the payoff – which is huge.

Here are a few guidelines for your charts and dashboards: Set clear guidelines for determining indicators. Always include trending and comparisons (hopefully to your competition or industry) and always set an attainment target.

Various methods of keeping and distributing this information have been around for a while: company intranets, file shares, knowledge bases, etc. Each has a niche. The trouble is that keeping information in these types of systems makes it static. Most often, if it is reviewed at all, it is reviewed solo and without context. This severely limits the ability for retention and understanding.

Key learning really happens when events are reviewed soon after they occur, and in a "live" environment. Therefore, make the data as fresh as possible and make sure everyone is looking at it. How do you do that? Well, you will have to beam yourself back to PEX in the near future to find out. In the meantime, live long and prosper.

And one final word of caution: If you’re thinking about employing any of these techniques, it’s probably not a good idea to start babbling on about BORG and collective consciousness to the CEO.