May 2001

Vol. 3, No. 5

Six sigma and more: 
David Schwinn ruminates about culture and behavior

by David R. Schwinn

In a thoughtful letter, a reader of this column asked what cultural and behavioral changes are necessary for Six Sigma success.

Let me share my personal theory about how culture, behavior, and performance fit together. First of all, a shifting in culture and behavior in a rapidly changing environment is fundamental to the survival and development of any organization, or any change initiative, such as Six Sigma. Culture is best understood as the assumptions, values, and beliefs that underlie the organization, system, or initiative. These assumptions, values, and beliefs may be stated or unstated. They are, however, very real and yet hard to define. Frequently, the stated assumptions, values, and beliefs are not consistent with the unstated ones. It is the unstated ones that can most profoundly influence behavior. A failure to "walk the talk" has become a normal, but very significant problem in most organizations for good reason.

Culture--this underlying package of assumptions, values, and beliefs--drives behavior. Behavior drives results. With a little reflection, the results can drive the culture. This is an important aspect of learning organizations. It would be overly simplistic to say that this simple cycle explains everything about how things really work, but I find it a useful model to describe the cultural and behavioral changes useful for Six Sigma success.

With this model in mind, it is important to examine the assumptions and behaviors that seem most fundamental to any approach to change of any kind. In next month's column, I will lay out other cultural and behavioral issues I believe are essential to Six Sigma success.

The first assumption made by Six Sigma efforts is that the organization is in the "Normal" phase of its development (George Land and Beth Jarmen, Break Point and Beyond, New York, NY: 1992). According to Land and Jarmen, an organization, or for that matter any living system, goes through three distinct phases in its development. The first phase involves the creation of the enterprise. This is a time for invention, new connections, clarifying intent, startup and chaos. Phase 2 is called the "Normal" phase. It is a time for standardization and improvement, rather than innovation and creativity. Although many organizations reach Phase 2, others do not.

Phase 3 is the transitional phase. Efforts at improving the key products, services, and processes of the organization don't seem to be working as well even though macro results may be continuing to improve. There are tiny cracks in the dike. Things are changing, problems are arising, but the signs may be very subtle. If an organization reaches Phase 3 and continues to act as though it is in Phase 2, the end may be in sight. This finish of the enterprise is likely even though an intense flurry of Phase 2 activity may yield short-term results. Phase 3 is a time for innovation. The organization must reinvent itself. It should look for new markets and new partners, create new kinds of products, services, structures, and processes, and let go those things that no longer work. Six Sigma works well for organizations that are dwelling in Phase 2. It is of little use in Phases 1 or 3.

Even for an organization that is existing within Phase 2, change is difficult. It has been said that people resist change. I believe it is more appropriate to say that people resist BEING CHANGED. Our organization and personal norms have evolved as the successful solutions to a problem, an opportunity, or a dream. To the extent that those solutions have been successful over time, we tend to forget the conditions that created them. The world does not stop turning. Everything changes. It is easy to get stuck in the steady state. It has "always" worked. For example, General Motors denial of Japanese supremacy in the marketplace at the end of the last century resulted in a severe loss in their market share. As the world changes, the stress between what the world offers and needs and our steady state increases. As a result, the pain increases. Eventually, holding onto the steady state kills us one way or another. It is often a slow, painful death. Acknowledge it, and learn from it before you move on. People generally don't mind change if they are acknowledged and consulted.

Finally, I would like to suggest that before you engage in a Six Sigma initiative, be sure your organization is in Phase 2. This is not a casual exercise. Remember that the signs that you have entered Phase 3 are subtle. Consult with a sample of all your stakeholders. Create an environment where they will have the courage to tell you the truth. The whole truth is hard to find in most human systems.

If you've determined yours is a Phase 2 organization, examine the pain. Again, go for the truth. Remember it will be hard to find. Acknowledge it. You might even say you're sorry. Analyze what you learn, report back to your stakeholders, and involve them as you take the next steps.

Next month, we'll look at some of the other cultural and behavior changes likely to make Six Sigma successful.

Keep in touch. You can reach me at


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