March 2001

Vol. 3, No. 3

Six sigma and more: 
Changing the culture means understanding change itself

by David R. Schwinn

As I was considering what to write this month I reviewed a reader response to an early article, "Six Sigma and Beyond: Getting Started." The reader suggested that the approach would never get the kind of whole systems change desired from Six Sigma.

The reader's comments made me realize that I had not made my underlying assumptions clear. I had assumed that most of the readers of this column are not operations managers or above, and that they are not currently involved in a Six Sigma effort. I concluded, therefore, that they would have to get their boss's approval before an organization-wide Six Sigma effort could go forward.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter's research suggests that popular organizational change myths are incorrect. (Rosabeth Moss Kanter, The Change Masters, New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1983). In studying several successful organizational transformations, she found that the CEO did not wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant vision. In fact, new strategic direction occurred only after small, successful, perhaps unplanned, experiments had occurred prior to the public commitment and the "official" date of the new initiative. Furthermore, that pre-announcement work was mostly forgotten in the public description of the process after success was achieved.

This only makes sense. After all, what CEO would want to commit the organization to an entirely new direction without some internal experience? That was certainly true of Ford Motor Company's commitment to the philosophy of W. Edwards Deming. As the organization was considering his approach, we at Ford were surprised to find the depth and success of Ford's use of statistical process control during World War II a story long forgotten. Given these assumptions, let's look at a broader Six Sigma change model within which the "getting started" steps can fit.

Foundations for Leaders (PQ Systems, 1994) begins with Kanter's research and proposes a generic system change model that works well for any organization. It suggests five elements that operate in a complex, semi-linear process.

  1. Departures from tradition: Planned or unplanned deviations from the organization's norms occur, often at the grass roots level. These deviations provide some evidence that the new way of doing things can work. It may be years, even decades, before these deviations from the normal way of doing things are recognized or noticed. The first six of the seven steps I recommended in the "Getting Started" article last fall provide more detailed suggestions here.
  2. Crisis or galvanizing event: Something happens to give a sense of urgency to the need for change. Usually such events occur without advance notice and are caused by an outside influence. But they can be planned or intentionally introduced. This could be the celebration I suggested as part of getting started.
  3. Strategic decisions: Leaders explore options for how they might meet the new crisis. Prior departures from tradition, because they provide at least some evidence of effectiveness, may become attractive alternatives. Leaders make "official" choices, often drawing up formal plans, committing resources, and defining goals and expectations.
  4. Individual prime movers: At this stage, champions emerge. They sponsor the change, helping to ensure commitment to it throughout. They talk about the change in meetings, publish it in newsletters, give status reports to management, and otherwise promote the change. They are identified, encouraged, supported, and reinforced by the formal structure of the organization. Quantitative and non-quantitative results are examined and measured here.
  5. Action vehicles: These are the organization's policies, standards, and procedures that must eventually support the new way of doing things if the new way is to become the new norm. Kanter suggests that when this element is operating, policy revisions come naturally in an effective change process. Old policies simply begin to seem contrary to the now highly valued new way. The boilerplate of the organization changes here because it no longer fits the desired and observed new behavior. Changing action vehicles, then, can be viewed as the "act" in the long-term Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle.

I think you will find this process a useful framework within which to create your own, unique Six Sigma strategy.

As always, stay in touch. I'm at  



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