Laugh It Off

When the going gets serious, the serious get goofy

by Diane G. Kulisek

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Assuring quality, and laughter, might seem at diametrically opposite sides of the human behavior spectrum. Quality is serious. It can impact lives and livelihoods. Being dubbed "the corporate conscience" doesn’t paint a jovial picture of your classic quality practitioner, either.

Being a quality practitioner can be stressful, though. People sometimes do shoot the messenger. Process improvement teammates don’t always play well together. Quality practitioners are sometimes targeted as being nonvalue added during budget cuts.

Executive decision makers might never be satisfied with our metrics for their key performance indicators. Design engineers might want us to accept their specification tolerances as our process control limits. Operations managers could argue (endlessly) that parallax error on a dial indicator is adequate rationale for inspecting to accept. Regulatory agency representatives and customer audit teams tend to show up at 7:30 a.m. and leave at 9 p.m., with one of us, of course, designated as their primary interface.

What can an embattled quality pro do? I say: laugh.

Health benefits

Many studies and articles have been published about the benefits of laughter and humor when managing people or projects, or when trying to overcome the potentially destructive impacts of stress. One such article revealed that laughter reduces the level of anxiety-related hormones (such as epinephrine/adrenaline and cortisol), while increasing the levels of health-enhancing hormones like endorphins and neurotransmitters.1 Laughter provides an emotionally cleansing release and a physical workout for your lungs, diaphragm and abdominal muscles, along with the tension relief associated with tightening and then relaxing your neck and shoulder muscles.

The same report indicates that laughter distracts us from the negative feelings associated with stress (dread, guilt, helplessness) and helps us improve our perspectives so failures and problems can be viewed more as challenges and opportunities. Not only that, laughter is a bonding experience. You can increase your social support network through group laughter. Laughter is also, thankfully, very contagious.

Contrary to the somewhat dour image quality practitioners sometimes seem to portray, I believe a bunch of us actually have quite a bit of fun doing the serious work we do and, accordingly, we laugh a lot. I admit it is a survival tactic, but all things considered, it seems to work pretty well.


To test my theory somewhat superficially, I asked an incisive question about tough situations to bring out the humor of quality practitioners within my LinkedIn network.2

I asked, "What is your favorite analogy to express how difficult a task is? Within a day, I had nearly 100 answers from workplace humorists all over the globe.

My favorite (socially acceptable) results have been summarized for you in "The Light Side of a Heavy Situation". I hope you find them as amusing and useful as I did.

A Pareto chart of the results might have been interesting because there were duplications, but I decided sharing the responses with you sorted by category of applicability would be more fun and, possibly, more practical. So, take a look.

I can confidently sum up this Career Corner column by saying, yes, quality practitioners can (and do) get goofy. Still, if you feel as though you might be among the laughter-challenged, there is help available, such as www.laughteryoga.org and www.worldlaughtertour.com.

Try creating a laughter journal, scrapbook or collage of funny things you see or read. When you’re feeling stressed, leaf through it until you find something that makes you smile. Think of it as your own customized prescription for stress reduction.

Check out an article by Canadian change agent and author Chuck Galozzi for a comprehensive list of other helpful tips about overcoming the inability to laugh.3

In closing, I will leave you with this classic quote about laughter from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children ... to leave the world a better place ... to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."4

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The Light Side of a Heavy Situation

What is your favorite analogy to express how difficult a task is?

Career Corner columnist Diane Kulisek elicited humor from colleagues by asking them the preceding question.

For the hard to imagine it would be a good idea task:

  • Like herding cats.
  • Like trying to milk a bull.
  • Like trying to milk an ant, while wearing boxing gloves.
  • Like trying to teach a pig to fly, ride a bicycle, sing or do anything other than act like a pig, which invariably frustrates you and annoys the pig.
  • Like pulling teeth or, for tougher tasks, like pulling teeth from an alligator.

For the hard to communicate about task:

  • Like trying to reason with a drunk.
  • Like trying to get the truth from a politician.
  • Like trying to get a contractor to deliver on time and under budget.
  • Like trying to sell ice to Eskimos.

For tasks done the hard way:

  • Like trying to hit a homerun with a tennis racket.
  • Like digging a tunnel with a teaspoon.
  • Like shooting pool with a rope.
  • Like rolling a square wheel up a hill.
  • Like being the catcher for the javelin team.

For tasks that are hard to do:

  • Like swimming, walking or wading through any thick gooey substance (like mud, custard, molasses or Brylcreem).1
  • Like pushing rope, string, a wet noodle or spaghetti up a hill.
  • Like trying to wallpaper fog (a Dilbert quote).2
  • Like trying to lasso a bubble, wrestle with air, dig wet sand or juggle water.
  • Like trying to push toothpaste back into the tube.
  • Like trying to nail jelly to a wall.
  • Like trying to lick your elbows (it is not physiologically impossible but you do look really stupid while trying)
  • Like a two-pipe problem (Sherlock Holmes quote3 alluding to lengthy enjoyment of his signature pipe, while addressing a messy, tough, agonizing problem).
  • Like a Sisyphusian situation (in Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned in Hades to push a massive boulder up a steep hill, watch it roll to the bottom and do it again, for eternity). 4
  • Like the stickiest situation since Sticky the Stick Insect got stuck on a sticky bun. (a Blackadder5 quote).

For tasks that are really hard to do:

  • Like trying to apply an irresistible force against an immovable object.
  • Like trying to boil the ocean.
  • Like squeezing blood out of a rock.
  • Like trying to fit 10 pounds of @#$%*! into a 5 pound bag.
  • Like trying to make the sun rise in the west.
  • Like parting the Red Sea.
  • Like trying to unscramble an egg.


  1. Brylcreem according to Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/brylcreem.
  2. Dilbert by Scott Adams, www.dilbert.com.
  3. Sherlock Holmes quote from The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1939; www.imdb.com/character/ch0026631/quotes.
  4. Sisyphus according to Wikipedia; URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/sisyphus.
  5. A BBC Comedy (discontinued); for information visit www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/blackadder.

References and Notes

  1. Elizabeth Scott, "The Stress Management and Health Benefits of Laughter: The Laughing Cure," About.com, April 22, 2008, http://stress.about.com/od/stresshealth/a/laughter.htm.
  2. LinkedIn is a professional networking website at www.linkedin.com; for an invitation to join the ASQ LinkedIn Group, contact acottonaro@asq.org.
  3. Chuck Galozzi, "Learning to Laugh," www.personal-development.com/chuck/learning-to-laugh.htm.
  4. Quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson on ThinkExist.com, http://thinkexist.com/quotation/to_laugh_often_and_much-to_win_the_respect_of/255196.html.

Diane G. Kulisek of Simi Valley, CA, is president of CAPAtrak LLC and an independent quality management consultant, writer and motivational speaker. She holds a master’s degree in engineering management from California State University, Northridge. Kulisek is a senior member of ASQ, chair of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Division and active in San Fernando Valley Section 706. She holds ASQ certifications as a manager of quality/organizational excellence and quality engineer.

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