perfect daisy with a  broken stem
PHOTO: Gajus

Based on the law of diminishing returns, has good enough become the new perfect? This past year we have all endured difficult lessons in accepting less than the best, but hopefully have also learned the importance of prioritizing and understanding good, better, best for 2021.

Lessons in Quality Management

The definition of good enough became a moving target throughout the pandemic. We found ourselves gratefully accepting inferior quality off-brands simply because they were the only product in stock at the grocery store. We patiently waited in interminably long call queues to speak to customer reps while listening to recorded messages about the pandemic extending wait times. And we watched as remote learning sessions failed in an educational system that seemed to disintegrate in front of our eyes, even as we pretended to maintain some sense of normalcy.

These experiences brought back my first lessons in quality management at GE with the Six Sigma program. Though often mocked in later years — such as this hilarious misrepresentation from "30 Rock" — Six Sigma was a legit set of techniques, tools and strategies to improve the quality of a process and its output by identifying and removing the causes of defects.

As I wrote in The Best Way to Improve Performance, “Reducing variation and mistakes made all the sense in the world [at GE] when building airplane engines, medical equipment and nuclear subs.” With Six Sigma, success means 99.99966% quality levels, essentially statistically free of defects.

Now we are facing a quintessential Six Sigma moment with the creation, production and distribution of vaccines for the COVID-19 virus.

Related Article: Six Sigma Letting You Down? Rediscover Concurrent Engineering

Six Sigma and the Cold Chain

The intense search for a COVID-19 vaccine has yielded remarkable results. Biotech Moderna announced the final results of their 30,000-person efficacy trial on Nov. 30 with a rate of 94.1%, far above what many vaccine scientists were expecting. More impressive still, Moderna’s candidate had 100% efficacy against severe disease. The company is filing a request for emergency use authorization with the US Food and Drug Administration and is also seeking a similar green light from the European Medicines Agency. This good news comes closely on the heels of the vaccine announcements from Pfizer and BioNTech with efficacy rates of 95%.

Reaching the more than 300 million people in the US alone is the daunting task that lies ahead. It will not be easy. Large-scale production and distribution of vaccines requires sensitive sterile rooms, special vials that must resist drops and pressure changes, and advanced storage and handling logistics — including maintaining ultra cold temperatures. As I have light-heartedly cited before from the Big Bang Theory episode archives, we know that “everything is better with Bluetooth” and the serious task of distributing these vaccines is no exception — not surprisingly they will be employing Bluetooth-enabled sensors for tracking.

Since we know that “vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations do,” hospital systems and other distribution outlets are readying their facilities. They are the last mile of the supply chain — and in this case the cold chain — that will be critical to success. There will be challenges in dealing with the physical chain but also with information across the chain — federal, state and local information sharing systems will be put to the test.

"There are a lot of challenges with the information side of the supply chain. The companies are sending product to distributors, but they are not responsible for who gets vaccinated. That’s the hospitals and pharmacies .… There are systems that can do this [information sharing] — like those that coordinate diagnostic testing. But they will have to be rolled out."    

All of these task must be done with speed and with Six Sigma quality. Our lives depend upon top performance.

Related Article: Persevering Through the Pandemic's Slack Tide

A Healthy Case of Atelophobia

What then is good enough in this crazy pandemic year and just beyond? We need to understand and balance our atelophobia, or fear of imperfection, of not being good enough. As an anxiety disorder, atelophobia can be debilitating, making the afflicted person feel like everything they do is wrong. As an objective measure, atelophobia relates to the law of diminishing returns and the concept of an optimal result. This is the idea that at a certain point all productive elements of a system are working at peak efficiency. You can't get any more efficiency from the system because everything and everyone is working at 100%.

Perhaps we all will need to continue accepting longer wait queues and off-brand products. It’s not the end of the world and things will get better. Less tolerance is called for with our imperfect pandemic learning scenarios. While we know students, parents and teachers are trying their best, our proactive dissatisfaction with the education status quo will be critical.  And when it comes to the vaccine, nothing less than our best will be good enough. A healthy case of atelophobia might be just what the doctor ordered.