August 2003  

Vol. 5, No. 8

Six Sigma and More: 
new process

by David R. Schwinn

In the seventeenth century, philosopher Rene' Descartes, proclaimed that mind and matter were two separate and independent realms. Galileo, the father of modern science, first combined empirical knowledge with mathematics. 

Then, Isaac Newton constructed his mechanics on the view that the material world could be understood as a multitude of different objects assembled into a huge machine (Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc., 1991). Scientific method, derived from the work of these men, was popularized by W. Edwards Deming as the Shewhart cycle: Plan, do, study, act (PDSA). Dozens of 7-Step processes for problem-solving have made scientific method the default mode of getting almost anything done. In general, the idea is to take things apart, find the "root" of the problem, fix it, put it back together. The Six Sigma DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) process is but one derivation of this 400-year old approach to learning and improvement.

This kind of thinking is also the basis for how organizations and institutions are designed and operated. They look like pyramids, with all the power and knowledge concentrated at the top. Detailed rules and instructions for how things are done are also created at the top, and then passed down through the "chain of command." Using a biological metaphor the "head" of the organization or the "brains" of the outfit represent this order, while the workers are the helping hands.

The "new" science, however, operates from an entirely different set of beliefs and assumptions. Its ideas are referred to in the business press as "systems thinking." More and more, even popular literature will refer to some aspect of the new science ° chaos, complexity, self-organization or emergence. These ideas turn scientific method on its head. Rather than focusing on separate and distinct parts, the new science focuses on whole systems, which are a result of the interactions of the parts. And for its lessons, it turns to what we know about how nature works, how it creates newness and novelty. It doesn't force things into being; it evolves and grows them, slowly over time ° and sometimes with great leaps of creativity. 

In organizations that are designed from these assumptions ° admittedly, these organizations are few and far between ° knowledge is widely distributed throughout the system, people closest to the work get together to agree on how they'll operate and get things done, and cooperation, rather than command and control, is the order of the day. They create conditions that bring forth the best in people, that allow for innovation and inspiration. The organizations can still thrive and adapt in rapidly changing environments.

So, the question is: Given the "new" science, do PDSA and DMAIC still have a role in learning and improvement? Of course they do. It would be hard to get along without ways of finding, diagnosing, and fixing problems in repetitive, mechanical processes. Even human systems would be in deep trouble if scientists weren't able to diagnose ailments, detect the miniscule and mysterious bacteria that cause disease, and find solutions to combat them in our bodies.

The point, though, is that these "take it apart and fix it" processes are not the only way. And when we try to use these same methods when they are not appropriate we get into trouble. The most damaging example of this is in trying to change the culture or character of an organization or institution, which is more than anything a process of changing people's hearts and minds. Sorry to say, you can't change people's minds through command and control. Is that what we've been trying to do in the quality movement and with Six Sigma efforts? Trying to get participative, democratic organizations using coercive methods?

If so ° and you don't need to agree with my judgment here ° is there a better way? What beliefs and assumptions would be a good place to start with? And what might a 7-Step process look like if we were trying for cultural or social change in our organizations based on different beliefs and assumptions? Here's one for you to consider, offered by my wife Carole to help people start social change movements. 

Step 1: Set your intentions in motion 
There is no time like the present, and there is no one quite like you. No one else sees the need like you do, and no one else is equipped to find a better way in exactly the same way you are. Intentions are powerful: spoken to yourself, they make life worth living. Spoken to others, they unleash unseen forces that can help with your dreams and aspirations. Goethe said, "Until one is committed, there is hesitancy. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.' Once your intentions are set in motion, there is no turning back. The new science tells us that nature is irreversible. "Life is born. Blink. Life is irrepressible." That doesn't mean that whatever you do will work or that you won't fall on your face a hundred times. It does mean that you've made a commitment to your life.

Step 2: Build simple things first
Whatever the great thing is that you'
re trying to bring forth in the world ° justice, democracy, health, peace, love ° it is an emergent property of a complex system, and emergent properties are created out of parts acting in concert. If you get the small things going, get them working right and working together, that may be all you need to do. Science has proven that even enormously complex social systems can be created by just making up a few simple rules and then setting a system in. Outline a few steps to take, a few rules to follow, and put together the materials and resources you'll need. And then just do it. Test out the plan, and test it out in more than one environment if at all possible. Get other people to try it out, too, and encourage them to add their own spin in their own way. This is no time to tell anybody that there's only one right way to do anything. Try things, mess it up, get back up, try something else.

Step 3: Replicate what's working 
In the real world, once a basic plan is in place, nature takes off and manifests it in endless variety. "Take ten designs, throw away nine, and do the tenth one up in a bazillion variations, like beetles," says writer Kevin Kelly (Out of Control. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. 1994). We're still talking about diversity, but we're also talking about sheer numbers. People who study these things say that not much happens when you populate a network with just a few nodes, even when you connect them all up. You need lots of nodes and lots of connections. 

Step 4: Make what you're learning explicit 
Take what people in your initiative are learning and make it explicit. Turn it into stories, theories, metaphors, models, approaches, and methodologies that people can use. Create and share best practices around the core elements of your work. Evolution heads toward more and more detail. Thriving systems move toward ever-increasing complexity and order, and, thankfully, the order is free. Take advantage of that gift, and give it back again to others who need to learn from your experience. 

Create the opportunity for the people involved to form "communities of practice," a social form invented by sociologist Etienne Wenger, for the purpose of generating and distributing new knowledge. These communities demonstrate that it is natural for people to seek out those who have knowledge and experience that they need. As people find each other and exchange ideas, good relationships develop and a community forms. This community becomes a rich marketplace where knowledge and experience are shared. It also becomes an incubator where new knowledge, skills, and competencies develop.

Step 5: Leap across boundaries 
Maybe you think that what you're doing only has value in your own particular context, your own organization. And maybe you don't think that you really need the support of others, and you're truly not interested in shining a light on what you're doing. But consider this: what if the small thing you're doing, or the one pattern you noticed, or the one technique you used was just exactly what somebody on the other side of the world needed right now. 

So figure out how to get out there and share what you're doing and what you're learning. Opportunities abound. Write an article, create a website, make a weblog, take out an ad in the newspaper, write a letter to the editor, join an association, make a presentation at a conference, write a book, go on the speaking circuit, add your story to one of a growing number of websites and portals where social change activists and practitioners are making online "coworlds."

Step 6: Ride the wave
Here's the point of this step, compliments of Kevin Kelley's creative imagination. Think of the big bang. Two currents were born out of the white flash of the universe's birth ten billion years ago. One is the current of entropy or the slow, but certain, death of everything. It "begins with a wild hot party and fizzes out into silent coldness," writes Kelley. The laws of this current say that, "all order will eventually succumb to chaos, all fire will die, all variety goes bland, all structure will eventually extinguish itself." The second current has the opposite effect. "It diverts the heat before the heat disperses (since disperse it must) and extracts order out of disorder. It borrows the failing energy and raises the ante into a rising flow." This is the wave to ride.

Step 7: Keep the faith
Changing something from your own backyard is not the work of the meek or the impatient. It takes vision, courage, tenaciousness, even brashness and brazen disregard for what other people might call pollyanna-ish optimism or pure folly. Philosopher Peter Koestenbaum observes how cultures and their artifacts are made up from our beliefs and assumptions and the stories we tell one another. Once created, we don't give these things up easily, he writes, "it is amazing how tenaciously cultures hold on to their organizing belief systems!" Obviously these are critically important to their very existence as human beings.

If we believe that aspects of our culture are killing us, then we humans can make up a new set of beliefs, assumptions and values that will produce a different cultureĐin the organization or in the world. 

Think about it. As always, I'd love to hear from you.I’m at


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