April 2002

Vol. 4, No. 4

Six Sigma and More: Continuing What Would Deming Do

by David R. Schwinn

This month, as I thought of What Would Deming Do, I was reminded of a classic, but real, story of an organization in which an understanding of variation was lacking. That understanding is, of course, essential to Six Sigma success. Here's the story.

A manager sent out a general letter to all his staff, telling them that they MUST abide by the policies regarding personal telephone use. Use of company telephones for personal matters was strictly off limits and subject to discipline according to company policy, the manager said.

Many of the staff were confused, upset, insulted, angry and hurt by the content of the letter. They were not particularly upset by the policy, but by the boss' inference that they were behaving badly regarding telephone usage. In fact, only a couple of people had been abusing the policy, but most people were unaware of that fact.

With an understanding of variation, the manager would have understood that the two people were special causes. He could have dealt with them separately, trying to uncover the causes for their behavior. Then the manager could have asked for the employees' cooperation to change whatever was causing their behavior.

Dealing with those individuals would require yet more knowledge of the 14 points, deadly diseases and profound knowledge. With a knowledge of systems theory, the manager would have looked at the whole system, rather than assuming that those two employees were somehow trying to take undue advantage of the situation. They may have been unaware of the policy. As it turned out, most of the staff was, in fact, unaware of its existence. The two telephone policy abusers may have had unanticipated personal problems, or chronic personal problems that they were afraid to share for fear of losing their jobs. They may have thought no one cared if they made personal calls on company time. And on it goes. Deming used to say that 95% of the problems are in the system, not with evil people. That is a good assumption. I'm sure there are people out there who behave in evil ways. In all my years of management, however, I have yet to find any working for or with me.

Having said all that, this manager's most critical mistake was treating a special cause as a common cause. Most of the staff was doing just fine regarding telephone usage. By treating everyone as if they were the source of the problem, he triggered several reactions. Most of them were not helpful. Here are a few:

  1. The staff spent plenty of time conversing about and wondering if they should behave differently, what they did wrong, what prompted this somewhat frightening communication, and what they should do. All that time could probably have been put to better use.

  2. The environment changed. Fear increased and trust declined. That trend caused people to be less creative, to take fewer risks. People kept their heads down a little more, just did their jobs, and stopped using their discretionary or extra time to help the organization. Honest communication was stymied. Fear caused people to drop back to their reptilian brain, focusing on "fight or flight" responses. That led to the third reaction.

  3. Most people don't like to be in "kick ass-take names" environments. Some will fight. They may react in positive, courageous ways. Others may figure out how they can get back at the manager in subtle, covert, and safe ways. The other choice, of course, is to fly. People will begin or redouble their efforts to be employed elsewhere. It is likely that the best employees will be successful.

All this may sound like overreaction to a single event, but my experience tells me that this kind of management behavior was not isolated and probably continues in many organizations. Good management requires knowledge. I discussed just two elements of that knowledge here.

  1. Know the difference between special causes and common causes and treat them for what they are.

  2. Whenever a problem or opportunity arises, look at the whole system. Consider everything including communication, the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual climate, both inside and outside the system, working and broken technology, equipment, and tools, training, policies, procedures, purchased supplies and services, and, of course, people.

We can be better. That is one of the messages of Six Sigma. I believe that requires dialogue. Please let me know what you think. I'm at support@pqsytems.com


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