June 2001

Vol. 3, No. 6

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

by David R. Schwinn

Interestingly, as I considered the cultural and behavioral norms essential for Six Sigma success, they fell into only three assumptions. As I said last month, I believe culture is made up of the assumptions, values, and beliefs that underlie the behavior of any human system. I believe, too, that there are at least three cultural guideposts that provide a solid foundation for a successful Six Sigma effort.

  1. View your organization as a living system.
  2. Value all stakeholders for their hands, their minds, and their spirit.
  3. Assume that any change effort involves a dynamic dance among the elements of standardization, dealing with special and common cause variation, experimentation, breakthrough thinking, and a creative calling to the future.

Believe that your organization is a living system (Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science, San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 1999). Understand that organizational (living system) health improves as internal connections improve and that its aim is development, not just growth. Many of our organizational beliefs and norms assume that our organizations are machines with interchangeable pieces called people. That model worked for the Roman Army. It aided in the productivity improvements of the Industrial Revolution. It even worked as Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor partnered to create the first assembly line. It still works today. Many people sit in their organization chart box. They do what is expected of them if they can figure it out. They do nothing more. They need a job and will, therefore, tolerate poor materials and working conditions. They will perform tasks that make no sense to them. They will keep quiet. Deming used to say, "Speak up three times and you're a marked man." But this behavior falls far short of the creative potential we find in nature. Instead, treat machines like machines and people as if they are alive.

This belief leads to the second guidepost. Value all stakeholders for their hands, their minds and their spirit. Whenever employees are treated as if they mattered, problems are minimal.Wherever they are treated as if they were somehow short on mind, body or spirit, turnover is high, absenteeism is high, labor relations problems abound, and performance suffers.

If you value all stakeholders, you may want to make intrinsic motivation part of your assumptions regarding why people behave as they do. Carrot and stick (extrinsic) motivation is deeply embedded in nearly all of our management systems. It is certainly an important part of most Six Sigma efforts. The assumption of extrinsic motivation drives Six Sigma's strong intent to reward and recognize behavior that results in significant progress toward six sigma performance. I am, however, reminded of Bill Conway's classic definition of management. Conway was CEO of a highly successful change effort at Nashua Corporation in the early 1980s when he said, "No more carrots and sticks, (my job is to) help the people."

Simply put, an extrinsic approach to motivation, by itself, is sometimes effective, but it also frequently triggers unanticipated, negative behaviors (see my "Let's Look at the Numbers" http://www.pqsystems.com/eline/v200101/sixsigmaandmore.htm column, for example). Intrinsic motivation assumes that most, if not all, people want to do a good job. They want to personally contribute to something larger than themselves. And they want feedback on their efforts as soon as possible. Believe that, given the opportunity, people motivate themselves and that carrots and sticks, carefully developed, can be useful, mostly to overcome what Fred Hertzburg calls "dissatisfiers" (Harold Koontz, Cyril O'Donnell, and Heinz Weihrich, Management, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1984).

Mutual trust is yet another value strongly held by the Six Sigma approach. This value leads to the desired behaviors of good, open, internal communication, rapid group response, continuous debriefing and reappraisal, and the ability and willingness to accurately and openly communicate the current situation.

Moving to another key stakeholder group that is frequently mistreated, consider suppliers. We provide them with fuzzy specifications, obscure pricing systems, and unpredictable delivery requirements with virtually no honest, two-way communications. Then we wonder why we have problems with them. Trust them as full partners.

The stakeholder groups most central to Six Sigma efforts are the customers and owners. They are the core beneficiaries of the intent of any Six Sigma initiative, best in class quality, customer satisfaction, and profits. Obviously, staying in close communication with them and serving their needs is essential.

Assume that any change effort involves a dynamic dance among the elements of standardization, dealing with special and common cause variation, experimentation, breakthrough thinking, and a creative calling to the future. This final value in the Six Sigma approach is an appreciation for variation and for a rational, linear, yet inventive, approach to change. This value plays out in the expectation that Six Sigma can be achieved at all. It is also seen in the high visibility that metrics and goals play in Six Sigma.

It is combined with, I propose, a robust belief that change involves a dance. I call it a dance because I believe it embraces both the logic that most of us have been trained in and the intuitive, creative, beautiful, and unmeasurable side of us that has been schooled and employed out of us.

These three guideposts of assumptions, values and beliefs should lead to behaviors that include:

  1. Appreciation, recognition, and rewards for the people.
  2. Clear quantitative and qualitative time-phased direction with an appreciation for variation in and learning from the results.
  3. Both analytic and creative thinking.
  4. Open, honest communications up, down, across, and outside the organization.

In summary, I believe a successful Six Sigma effort will begin with participative, in-depth assessment of the current situation, something that includes a description of both the stated and the real culture, as part of the process. Next, describe the culture and behaviors you desire. Encourage and support the new behaviors. Examine the existing systems that need to change in order to be consistent with the direction you are choosing. Revise these systems as needed. Although the culture and behaviors I have described here may be useful, take the time to create your own. Define your expectations together, and begin an ongoing cycle of learning. That learning cycle will result in clearer assumptions, values and beliefs, new and different internal systems, behaviors which are more consistent with the new stated culture and the desired results, and ever improving performance.

Keep in touch. You can reach me at support@pqsystems.com.

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