March  2003

Vol. 5, No. 3


Six Sigma and More: 
'It's not your job to think about these things...'

by David R. Schwinn

I recently heard the most amazing true story from a mid-sized organization with several branch offices. Branch managers are experienced, highly educated professionals. The story begins when the organization was fortunate to attract a new branch manager, one with an abundance of experience and education. As she leaped into her new job and attended a couple of staff meetings, she found that it was difficult to figure out how the work was supposed to get done, or who was supposed to do what. At a staff meeting of all the branch managers, she suggested that the managers themselves could work to identify the tasks and roles for which they were responsible, and bring them back for clarification. Her boss kindly replied that all that had already been taken care of, and that she would provide that information to everyone at some future staff meeting. The branch managers all looked forward to that explanation.

Sure enough, at the next staff meeting, the boss provided a PowerPoint presentation delineating the tasks for which the entire division of the organization was responsible. When the new manager thanked her for the list, and asked for further explanation about who was to do what task, a remarkable response was forthcoming:

“It’s not your job to think about these things. Here’s a good analogy. You just sell the cars and service them.” (In case you haven’t guessed, this organization is not in the car business.)

The new manager thanked the boss for that clarifying analogy, and then asked, “What do we do if we don’t have any parts?” The answer was, “Don’t worry about it. We know what we’re doing. Just call us and we’ll take care of it.”

My immediate reaction upon hearing the story was, “How can anyone be so stupid?” The Ritz-Carlton came immediately to mind, in contrast. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Companies, LLC, as I understand it, asks every employee to take care of the customer. They are encouraged to do whatever it takes to make a customer happy including spending up to $2,000 to resolve a customer situation on the spot. In fact, my wife and I and friends were staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta one time, and the doorman ran to the gift shop to buy umbrellas for the women in the party!

Please understand that I consider car salesmen and service technicians to be professionals worthy of appropriate respect. But the message to the branch managers from the central office executive in the story was clear. Stay at your desk or service stall, and wait for customers to come to you. When they come, help them if you can, and call us if you can’t. Do not take any initiative.

I know that many executives act as if that is the behavior they expect from their employees, but I have never heard about anyone in a professional environment actually articulating the sentiment. One of the examples of this phenomenon that seems to cross my desk at least once a week is how the monitoring of employees’ Internet activity is a way to improve productivity. I expect many of our employees spend time on the Internet because they are supposed to be “car salesmen and service technicians,” and, therefore, have nothing else to do with their time.

I cannot understand why a manager would behave that way unless he or she were afraid that one of their employees might do the wrong thing. Fear is a powerful force. Of Dr. Deming’s 14 Obligations of Management, he said that Point #8, “Drive Out Fear,” was the most difficult to achieve. Research says that fear thrusts us down into our reptilian brain where we fight, flee, or freeze. Fear also leads to irrational behavior. I understand that one of the best things to do to reduce one’s own fear is to figure out the worst thing that can happen in the specific situation we’re in. Once we’ve determined how to live with the worst, fear seems to begin to subside, and our behavior becomes more rational.

So, here’s my admonition to Six Sigma managers. First, given the chance, hire folks who are smarter and more talented than you are. And, even if you didn’t hire them, assume all your employees fit that description. Then expect them to perform brilliantly. But don’t define exactly where or how they will do that. Each has individual talents, experience, and passion about which you probably have little information. Continually work with them to agree on how they will express their brilliance. Try it out and see how you’ll achieve and exceed Six Sigma faster and easier than you ever expected. And you can reap your first savings by cutting off the resources devoted to monitoring employee Internet activity.

As always, I treasure your reactions. I’m at support@pqsystems.com


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