October  2002

Vol. 4, No. 10

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 purpose? '
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 profitability much.
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 it.
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 together.
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 worthy question.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please contact me at support@pqsystems.com

Copyright 2002 PQ Systems.

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