Six Sigma and More:
"For what purpose?"
by David R. Schwinn
I woke this morning too full of mainstream
news. Some CEOs are going to jail, some CEOs cook the books, some CEOs earn
500 times the wages of their employees. Arafat's compound is being torn
down, terrorism is everywhere, pre-emptive strikes are imminent, HIV/AIDS is
a pandemic in Africa, child labor and poverty are everywhere, and resource
use and pollution are increasing at rates that may destroy the planet.
It got me to recalling one of Dr. Deming's most familiar questions, 'For
what purpose? ' We all know the classic difference between
management‑-doing things right--and leadership--doing the right thing.
I believe that, in general, our work falls somewhere in between. I also
believe that Six Sigma leans heavily toward the management side. My thoughts
this morning lead me to encourage you to step back and ask, 'For what
As I ponder this, I am reminded of two viewpoints I hold about my world.
Mary Catherine Bateson, a well-known anthropologist, argues that, 'men
have been trained in the importance of single-mindedness, of narrowly
focused attention. ' (Peripheral Visions, New York: HarperCollins
Publishers, 1994, p. 97). She observes that women have been encouraged to
take a more holistic, integrative perspective. She further argues that this
began as a result of men's ancient roles in hunting and warfare. Narrow
focus is, therefore, a deeply-held male value and orientation.
Another perspective lies in the legal view that corporate leaders are
fiscally responsible to their stockholders. Given these two perspectives,
and the predominance of male leadership in corporations, financial
performance is the logical single-minded focus of rational corporate
executives. The natural inclination is to use Six Sigma to drive down the
cost of existing products and services. But if customers are increasingly
disinclined to want these products and services, or if they are unable to
purchase them because they are unemployed, these reduced costs won't help
So, ask what's the purpose of your Six Sigma initiative. It may be to
reduce cost, to increase customer satisfaction, to increase profit, to
improve CEO compensation, to save jobs, or any of many other possibilities.
Let people know the answer. People are more inclined to work hard on efforts
that are important, personal, and likely to provide timely feedback. If that
is true, and I believe it is, those in your organization or community are
likely to get more excited about Six Sigma if they know why they are doing
My guess is that asking the purpose question will also show you
opportunities beyond Six Sigma for fulfilling the resulting larger mission.
With that larger mission in hand, reexamine what your organization and the
people in it are good at. Also check out what they dream of. Talk to your
customers to find out their needs and expectations. Begin some conversations
with your suppliers and other partners and friends to explore new ways to be
Your larger mission and these conversations may, in fact, get you to my
conclusion. Six Sigma is necessary, but not sufficient. These broader
conversations are likely to create new features, new services, new products,
new markets, and new contributions by employees and partners alike, beyond
what you thought possible. It is unlikely that a Six Sigma effort alone will
yield them. At the speed the world is changing, doing better what we're
already doing is necessary, but not sufficient. We must also be both
proactive and quickly reactive. Asking, 'For what purpose? ' is always a
As always, I welcome your comments and questions. Please contact me at