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David Bowie: Look Back in Quality

Unless you live under a black country rock, you’ve no doubt heard that the world recently lost one of the greatest artists of our time, David Bowie. My memories of the Thin White Duke go all the way back to my formative years. I recall his music echoing through the halls of our house as I crooned along whilst doing the chores. Then as now, Bowie’s creativity and energy inspired me and helped me do what I do.

Since his death, I’ve been reflecting on the many prophetic works that this prolific and visionary artist contributed to the world. In the old days, songs were released in collections called “albums.” This was an artifact of an inefficient and technologically unsophisticated delivery system that relied on large, unwieldy disks that were prone to scratches, warping, and other defect modalities. But I digress. Like a true artist, Bowie often used the media at hand as a vehicle for his art.

In addition, his albums often told stories, which many different audiences have interpreted in many different ways. When I listen to Bowie, I hear stories about life, love...and process quality control.

You might be surprised to discover that David Bowie was a proponent of quality process improvement. For example, you may be familiar with one of David’s earlier classics, “The Man Who Sold the World.” But did you know that David’s original title for the album was The Man Who Sold the World on the Benefits of Continuous Quality Improvement? Of course, that's never been publicly acknowledged. Unfortunately, cigar-chomping executives at the record company forced him to shorten the title because, in their words, “Kids don’t dig quality improvement.” Fools.

Bowie’s subsequent album, Hunky Dory, was an ode to the happy state of affairs that can be achieved if one practices continuous quality improvement. Don’t believe me? Then I challenge you to explain why I hear these lines from the song “Changes”:

I watch the ripples change their size
but never leave the value stream of warm impermanence

For decades I’ve struggled to understand these inscrutable lyrics, but now I realize that they are about control charts. Of course! You see, by ripples, David refers to the random fluctuations of varying sizes that occur naturally in any process. And he asserts that if the process is in control, then the ripples don’t wander outside of the control limits (a.k.a. the stream). Whilst acknowledging that such control makes us feel warm and fuzzy, David also reminds us that process stability is impermanent unless one is dedicated to continuous process improvement and control.

If Hunky Dory is an homage to quality utopia, then Diamond Dogs surely represents the dysphoric chronicles of a harrowing dystopia in which the pursuit of quality has been abandoned. (Fun fact: some claim the original album title was Your Business Is a Diamond in the Rough; Don’t Let Quality Go to the Dogs.) Perhaps jarred by the panic in Detroit, David warned us to pay careful attention to issues of quality in our economic and social institutions. And he warned of an Orwellian future in which individuals are unable to pursue and maintain quality in their organizations because they are stifled by an authoritative ‘big brother’ who gives them neither the attention nor the resources to do so effectively.

By the time his album Young Americans was released, David appeared to be feeling cautiously optimistic about improvements in the quality of quality improvements, as I am reminded every time I hear these lyrics from the song “Golden Years”:

Some of these days, and it won't be long
Gonna’ drive back down where you once belonged
In the back of a dream car twenty foot long
Don't cry my sweet, don't break my heart
Doing all right, but you gotta work smart
Shift upon, shift upon, day upon day, I believe oh Lord
I believe Six Sigma is the way

Some might question Bowie’s insistence on Six Sigma methodology, but I believe none would question his assertion that we must “work smart,” and that dedication to quality is absolutely essential.

As one final piece of evidence, I present the following quote from Bowie's song, "Starman." I personally believe this song is about a quality analyst from an advanced civilization in another galaxy. Gifted songwriter that he was, David realized that "quality analyst from an advanced civilization in another galaxy" was too many syllables to belt out on stage, so he used the "starman" as a metaphor. I've taken the liberty of making the substitution below; I think you'll agree, the veracity of my interpretation is inescapable. 

There's a [quality analyst from an advanced civilization in another galaxy] waiting in the sky
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds
There's a
 [
quality analyst from an advanced civilization in another galaxy] waiting in the sky
He's told us not to blow it

'Cause he knows it's all worthwhile

So, so obvious when you know what you're looking for. Kind of gives you goosebumps.

I took a few moments with fellow Minitab blogger and Bowie fan, Eston Martz, to brainstorm about what made Bowie such a monumental and influential artist. I collected our notes and created this fishbone diagram in Minitab Statistical Software. This is only a partial listing of Bowie's albums, musical collaborators, personas, and topics that he covered in his music. It would take many more fish with many more bones to cover all of his artistic collaborations, movie roles, and other artistic endeavors. Thanks for the music, David, and thanks for the inspiration, past, present, and future.

 

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