September 2001

Vol. 3, No. 9

Six Sigma and More:
A Deming moment and its relevance to Six Sigma

by David R. Schwinn

Last month's column pushed a hot button for many of you. Apparently, destructive performance appraisals are still alive and well in many organizations. Some of the stories I received from readers described selective evaluations based on who people are in the organizations, and "stealth" systems based on secret observations by co-workers. These sound a little like penal tactics to me. 

The existence of these practices takes me back to a fundamental belief that is, I think, essential for the long-term viability of any initiative such as Six Sigma, or of any organization and any culture. It is best articulated as part of the values of a wonderful new international leadership initiative, From the Four Directions. The value is "We rely on human goodness.  Human nature is the blessing, not the problem."  If you want to learn more, check out the website at  I fear that the value upon which most performance evaluation systems are based is, "We must guard against the innate evil of human nature."

These reader responses and others took me to the title of this article, as well.  In the late 1980s, I was a speaker at one of the Ohio Quality and Productivity Forums.  I was to speak about some of the work we had been doing in upper east Tennessee.  I was preparing for the presentation before it began, when in walked Dr. Deming. As many of you know, Dr. Deming had extremely high expectations of his practitioners and of managers in general. He was also not timid about publicly and loudly criticizing the work of those he felt fell short. Although his presence sparked some fear in me, I also knew him to be a kind mentor and generous friend. After the room filled, I began my presentation with Dr. Deming sitting in the front row. 

The presentation was about a new approach that involved applying his principles across a whole community, rather than just within a single organization. I was just completing an explanation of a "Six Sigma" type project successfully undertaken by the management team of a computer manufacturer in the community, when Dr. Deming rose from his seat and in a very loud voice, said "David, that is very interesting, but unimportant." The wisdom of what he said struck me immediately and I moved into a dialogue with the audience to help them understand his message.

You see, he knew that I was working with top management to help them learn how to improve throughput. They, in fact, led the streamlining of the documentation system used for building computers.  Their project resulted in significant improvements in cost, throughput, and quality.  Dr. Deming's point, however, was that they should have been working to change the systems that had created the original inefficient and ineffective documentation system and other systems that served to prevent employees from best serving the customers and other. The systems, forms, and practices that generally get in the way include the performance evaluation system, the pay system, the management and leadership style, the systems for developing and managing goals and objectives, the customer feedback system, the strategic planning system, and the organizational structure.  These are the systems that, unless continually reviewed, revised, and/or redesigned are likely to cause the failure of a Six Sigma effort.

One of the readers noticed Motorola's recent struggles after being a Six Sigma pioneer. With virtually no knowledge of the case, I am happy to hypothesize that failure to continually reexamine the beliefs and assumptions that underlie these systems may have been the cause. We know, of course, that everything changes. Six Sigma efforts tend to focus on improving the performance and efficiency of existing processes, products, and services. As customer expectations, competitive forces, resource availability, and employee needs change, our Six Sigma efforts may help us do an exemplary job on the wrong things, with the wrong view of people.

Information technology and our shrinking globe are accelerating the rate of change. Make sure your Six Sigma efforts are supported by systems that contribute to, not impede, your progress.  And make sure your efforts are improving the things that are important to your organization today and tomorrow, not yesterday.

As always, let me know what you think. You can reach me at


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