July 2003  

Vol. 5, No. 7

Six Sigma and More: 
At the heart of improvement—communication  

by David R. Schwinn

A friend of mine was recently reviewing the financial statements of her firm when she ran across an entry that surprised her. It was a liability she had not seen before nor had she anticipated seeing it.  In preparing a report for another purpose, her staff had relabeled an old debt so it looked as if it was currently owed, and in so doing, communicated a problem that did not exist.

Although this misunderstanding was quickly cleared up, my friend was upset when she saw the entry--enough that it could have caused a serious rift between herself and her colleagues. Fortunately, they are highly skilled and experienced communicators with strong, trusting relationships.

These misunderstandings, however, happen to the best of us. They can happen whenever human beings get together. Six Sigma efforts are not immune. While we all know what to do in these instances, a refresher might be useful.

Let's start with the basics.  I don't know when communication became a critical business skill, but these tools were around when I joined the workforce more than forty years ago.  We still don't use them very well.  In PQ System's Total Quality Transformation Team Skills, these basic communication skills are defined as “Questioning,” and “Total listening.”  That seems like a good place to start. 

I believe the best way to begin communication is by asking questions. In my day-to-day interactions with new, small business consulting clients, for example, I frequently start with three questions:

  1. How did you find out about us?

  2. What can I do for you?

  3. How did you come to be at this place in your life?  Please tell me your story.

These three simple questions begin a conversation that leads toward understanding, and the avoidance of MIS-understanding. They help me focus on serving the real needs of my client. They tend to prevent me from wasting our time by responding to needs the client does not care about. These kinds of questions are important. Open-ended questions are generally better than closed questions, which generate only  yes/no or very short responses. Open questions are more likely to get you what you really want to learn about this person. So make up your own questions, but start there Ý with questions.

Asking questions will lead to the next fundamental skill, total or active listening.  This kind of listening is uncommon, even though it is very effective as compared to most listening, which misses much of what the speaker is trying to communicate. Total listeners concentrate on what is said with their ears and eyes, taking in both words and body language. It is hard work. It communicates respect for the listener. And it ends with a message from the listener that checks for understanding.  

More recently, David Bohm and Bill Isaacs, among others, have popularized dialogue as a deeper way of communicating.  Bohm originally drew a distinction between discussion and dialogue.  He described discussion as talking back and forth with one another as different views are presented and defended, in a search for the “best” view.  Dialogue, on the other hand, has been described as a free and creative exploration of complex and subtle issues with more of an intention to learn from one another, to create shared meaning.  Bohm's necessary conditions for dialogue help further describe the process. They are:

  1. All participants must suspend their assumptions while understanding that nearly everything they think is an assumption.

  2. All participants must regard one another as colleagues.

  3. There must be a “facilitator” who “holds the context”and helps participants follow the first two commitments.

A popular summary phrase for dialogue has been “Seek first to understand.”  There has been much written on dialogue. The several books by David Bohm and William N. Isaacs are the best place to start.

Finally, communication has been deepened further by the work of Margaret Wheatley, Christina Baldwin, Ann Linnea, and others.  Baldwin and Linnea have discovered circle, an ancient, peer-led, spirit-centered process (see Calling the Circle) that, as one practitioner wrote, “First saved my business, and now it's saving my marriage.”  In Turning to One Another, Meg Wheatley encourages conversation:

“It takes courage to start a conversation. But if we don't start  talking to one another, nothing will change.  Conversation is the way we discover how to transform our world, together.”

Don't take these processes lightly. They represent a step beyond dialogue. They take us beyond intellectual communication. These books and others are worth investigating.

Their work has come together in a most amazing package available through The Berkana Institute www.berkana.org The package is called the From the Four Directions Circle Starter Kit. Although the kit is designed to encourage life-affirming leaders, and therefore, may not be directly suitable for your Six Sigma effort, it is a wonderfully efficient, yet comprehensive, synthesis of the work of these women. But be careful.  This is designed for courageous leaders who are prepared to change the world today. If you are going to wait until next month before you start, maybe you should put off getting this kit for a while.

My message this month is this. Improve your communication. Maybe ask more or better questions. Perhaps tune up your listening skills. Beginning or enhancing dialogue may be where you are. Or perhaps it's time to take the plunge into circle and some serious conversation. You don't have to start your next meeting by lighting a candle, but do something that requires some risk-taking. Your Six Sigma effort will benefit.  I guarantee it.

Thanks for your responses. Please keep them coming. They inspire me and keep me thinking. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.


Copyright 2003 PQ Systems.

Please direct questions or problems regarding this web site to the Webmaster.