There are many instances when how we choose to define something has a tremendous impact on the ultimate outcomes that are achieved. In two different contexts this week, this important fact played a role in events that impact some great people in my world.
First, the operational definitions that so many of us rely on to decide what is “good’ or “bad” can determine how or even whether we label something appropriately. In his book Out of the Crisis, W. Edwards Deming defined an operational definition this way:
An operational definition puts communicable meaning into a concept.
If one is striving to put a concept in place that everyone can understand, then a common definition is a must. As I have been working with a few of our supervisors, it has become more apparent that some within my own organization have been operating under different operational definitions. This can (and likely has) caused confusion for people who must operate within these different areas and has led to problems in the quality of the service we can provide. By developing a common operational definition, it should be easier for all involved in the delivery of services to be able to meet the expectations of the organization and those we serve. I asked the question about the fairness of holding people accountable to a concept that hadn’t been defined consistently. Thankfully, everyone understands that concept and is working together to reach a common operational definition.
The second area showing the importance of defining something came in the news this week. Medical professionals are examining the operational definition of autism.
This proposal to change and narrow the criteria used to diagnose autism (hence the operational definition) could affect many people. The definition is being re-assessed by the American Psychiatric Association for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly called the DSM.) It’s the first major revision to the DSM in 17 years.
If changed, the new definition would likely make it much more difficult for people to meet the criteria needed to obtain health, education and social services. It is believed that changing the definition for autism may hurt more than help those who are autistic. There is growing concern that some of those currently receiving treatment and services will not be eligible for treatments if they have a mild case. Specifically, therapists are worried if the definition becomes too strict it will leave out some of the high functioning patients that need treatment and currently benefit from the treatment they receive. More of these concerns are well documented here.
This is a real life example of how a changing definition can have an impact on real people. It is a good lesson to remember as we attempt to define things consistently in our own organizations and establish the operational definitions that everyone can use.