October 2003  

Vol. 5, No. 10

Six Sigma and More: 
If you can't say something nice...

by David R. Schwinn

“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Those are some of my mother’s words of advice that have stayed with me. Although she was a dedicated Catholic, I just found out that she may have also been part Buddhist.

At my second annual visit to my local Buddhist monastery last week, I learned a new question to ask myself. It turns out that the question is central to Buddhism. The question is “Is this thought, speech, or action to my benefit and the benefit of others?” Sounds a lot like Mom’s advice, eh?

This maxim offers admirable direction, but in the hard, cold world of business, and, by the way, Six Sigma, we cannot “say nothing at all.” That is true, perhaps, but maybe we can do something even better. During the monastery visit, I remembered that I am lately finding myself getting angry in diverse situations. As I tried to find a common theme, I realized that I have been getting angry when I see traditionally powerful people taking actions that cause harm to people less powerful than they are. When I shared this frustration with the Venerable Bhikkhu Khemasanto, he reminded me that the powerful person is not likely to have evil intent. Moreover, my anger is not likely to benefit either myself or the other person.
I believe it is far better to get to know the person who is disturbing me. It is even better than remaining silent. So I think we should find out why people are behaving in a way that makes us angry, disappointed, sad, or whatever negative emotion we feel. Make the inquiry wide-ranging. Peoples’ behavior is seldom the result of some simple cause-and-effect relationship. Even the Buddhists who seem to see cause and effect as a very important phenomena would, I believe, acknowledge that the chain is usually neither simple nor short. Encourage your tormentor to share their story. And consider your own story. Peter Block, a friend and well known management consultant, likes to ask folks who are upset with others, “What is it about YOU that causes you to be upset with the other person?”

If your tormentor is a person more powerful than you, he or she probably has different information than you do, or a different world view or perspective. That person may feel the need to maintain or increase stock price no matter what, and may be unaware of viewpoints other than his or her own. The tormentor may, in fact, be unaware of skills, processes, resources, and other options available that you know about.

If your tormentor is an employee, he or she is likely to be operating from a lack of information or skill. David Chambers, a pioneer in the world of continual improvement, liked to tell a story about poor operator performance in a textile plant in the middle of the last century. Management was upset by the poor quality caused by the textile workers in their plant. David was asked to solve the problem. Simple conversations with the workers showed that they thought that productivity was the goal without regard to quality. They were told quality was important. Quality improved. Some workers, however, were still making poor quality products. Upon further examination, it was found that these workers had poor eyesight. In those days, eyecare was not an employment benefit and eyeglasses were expensive. Once these deficiencies were taken care of, the quality problem evaporated.

If the tormentor is a supplier, make sure that he or she too, understands the requirements. Several years ago, I managed a plant that suddenly began receiving customer complaints about visual defects. We were the tormentor. After attempting with little success to fix the problem, I went to our customer’s plant, only to find that that they had revised their operation and significantly improved the lighting. Once we revised our own process to match that of our customers, our quality improved.

In the world of Six Sigma, if someone is driving you nuts, figure out a way to say something nice so you don’t have to be quiet. Benefit yourself, benefit others, and benefit the improvement effort by having a conversation. The Six Sigma tools we all know are useful but the conversation is essential.

As always, I welcome your thoughts. I'm at support@pqsystems.com

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