May  2003

Vol. 5, No. 5

Six Sigma and More: 
Knowing when to walk away

by David R. Schwinn

“You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” That’s the advice given by a gambler in the title song of an old favorite recording of mine by Kenny Rogers.

In the managerial ethics course I’m teaching, we’re talking about “whistle blowers” and the unethical and, sometimes, illegal business and organizational behaviors that are so often in the news today. While I, like many, want to believe that this behavior is the exception, I am surprised how often it seems to occur.

I recently heard stories of employees being told to falsify fuel usage data for fear that accurate records would provide evidence of illegal fuel spillage that is occurring. Another associate told me of being scapegoated by a supervisor because the office norm was to provide bad leads. It seems the telemarketing office had numerical goals to provide leads to the mortgage loan officers. Because there was insufficient time to get good leads, the office norm was to make up data for some of the leads, in order to get the numbers. My associate observed this behavior and told his supervisor. The supervisor thanked him but did nothing. When the mortgage loan officers began complaining to top management, my associate was blamed even though he had refused to engage in the practice. Seeing the writing on the wall, my associate “ran.”

Another friend had the audacity to ask questions about who should be doing what jobs related to serving students in an educational environment. She was told to answer the questions asked by the students only if she could, and to refer all others to central office. Given that direction, she stopped taking marketing initiative and stopped attempting to solve student problems by using resources other than her own or those of the central office. Shortly after that, she started receiving emails from her supervisor accusing her of actions that were clearly untrue. She “walked away.” Interestingly, one of the people she was not allowed to talk to, the person who previously held the position, called shortly after my friend quit. It turned out that the previous director had left on a mental health/stress leave as had a whole series of directors before her. In another educational setting, one of our daughters recently left a university faculty position, because she experienced it as a “toxic” environment, in which one person after another was becoming ill due to stress. At her farewell party, she received a standing ovation and kudos from her colleagues for the courageous choice she made.

It is probably only fair that I share my own experiences of “walking away.” While at one of the Big Three automakers, I found myself in a department where all the employees were continually being criticized. Our work was never good enough. There was always more work than could be done beyond a very superficial level. And because the work output was never good enough, we were in a constant state of rework with no direction either initially or with the rework. I was so disturbed by the unusually destructive nature of this situation that I asked permission to investigate it in order to find a solution. I was given permission to do it, but it had to be done on top of my regular work. I spent the next four weeks working 16-hour days. I gave my recommendations to departmental management. They thanked me. Nothing happened. I started looking around for opportunities elsewhere. Blessedly, I was transferred. I found out, after the fact, that my initiative had put me two people away from being laid off. I also found out later that the department troubles had been a trickle-down effect from a division takeover that was being attempted. I hadn’t a clue.

My only other experience with “walking away” was with an environmental consulting firm. It was a surprisingly enlightened firm, dedicated to continual improvement. The policies and standards in place for working with employees and partners and for serving customers were remarkably progressive. The CEO, however, seemed to be generally pessimistic about the business. He was, in fact, very critical of everyone. He criticized competitors for playing unfairly. He criticized other employees and partners for not doing their jobs. He even criticized customers for being dishonest and greedy. He probably criticized me, too, but I never heard it. I found myself becoming discouraged and unhappy. I was aware that my attitude about going to work was much darker than my attitude toward the rest of life. Since I “walked away,” others in the firm have done the same.

I tell these stories to ask you to be conscious of when you should “hold ‘em, fold ‘em, walk away, or run.” My own experience tells me it is difficult to tell, but the decision may be critical to your economic, physical, and emotional wellbeing. While Six Sigma is a very powerful approach to organizational improvement, it may be superimposed over a very dysfunctional organization, department, or management team. Keep all your senses alert.

As always, I would love to read your reactions and questions. I’m at

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