December 2003  

Vol. 5, No. 12

Six Sigma and More: 
Managing knowledge

by David R. Schwinn

As I was reading “Knowledge Management as an Economic Development Strategy.” a report prepared by Kenan Patrick Jarbor and the Athena Alliance for the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce (Washington, DC: April 2001), I was reminded of the ways in which Knowledge Management (KM), in its broadest sense, can accelerate any organizational development effort such as Six Sigma.
My thoughts went back to a KM effort we tried at Ford World Headquarters in the early 1980s.  I don’t believe the term KM had yet been invented, but we were trying out an idea we had to accelerate the adoption of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s ideas to all of our operations worldwide. At that point, we had provided most of our operations with an orientation, some exposure to Deming, minimal training, and access to a few consultants who could help with their adoption. We knew, informally, that a few operations were taking on improvement projects and we wanted to expand these efforts as a way of embracing Deming’s philosophy.  Sharing the detailed stories of early successful improvement projects with the rest of the company, we thought, would recognize those early innovators, encourage the rest, and provide templates that could be copied. 
Our brilliant idea did not work very well, however.  When Deming found out about our
idea he toasted us (not in a good way) pointing out that people cannot simply copy others’ work.  Every situation is different.  Study, learn the principles that created the success, adapt, and apply--that was his advice.  These processes might work, but copying will not, he told us.  That advice seems so obvious to those who practice KM today, but it was new to us then.  The other surprise was how difficult it was to get our innovators to share their stories.  We never did figure out why those stories were so hard to get.
Reflecting on this puzzle,  I can recall one of the things we learned with the Jackson CommUnity Transformation Project in the late 1990s. We asked citizens to participate, to share their stories, both of success and of frustration. When the organizational managers requested citizens’ presence, they showed up, physically. Their mental and emotional presence, however, was not guaranteed. Sound a little like work?  We found the incentive for other citizens to be food.  When these citizens came, they were fully engaged.  And they continued to come, I believe, because they felt that their presence and input were honored, their ideas were publicly documented, and their views would influence the direction of the community’s efforts.
More recently, I observed another organization using Blackboard, a software program usually used to facilitate virtual and face-to-face learning in a classroom environment.  Its use was a little spotty.  Several of the participants were disappointed, because it required their proactive intervention.  If, for example, they posted questions to the Blackboard community, they would have to go back to find the answers rather than have them emailed to them.  Okay, so convenience is important with KM, just as it is with any other tool we want people to use, but I was still puzzled about why it was so hard to get success stories in these instances and at Ford.
I shared this puzzle with my wife, Carole, who knows much more about KM than do I.  She said, “It’s probably ba.”  I said, “Huh?”  Ba is a Japanese idea which roughly translates to “place.”  But in Enabling Knowledge Creation by Krough, Ichijo, and Nonaka (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000), the authors define the term to be an enabling context in which knowledge is shared, created, and used.  It is a network of interactions determined by the care and trust of participants.
When we tried our little KM experiment at Ford, we were at the very beginning of attempting to turn around a culture of command and control, internal win-lose competition, fear, dishonesty, animosity and political intrigue, with very little understanding of the power of that culture’s impact on our behavior.
Here’s the point.  If you want to accelerate your Six Sigma effort, try Knowledge Management.  When you do, here are a few things to remember:

  1. Study successes, develop theory worth sharing, adapt it when and where it is needed, and apply it.  Much of what passes for KM these days is simply storing information in towers no one uses.
  2. Honor everyone’s input, document it publicly, and work with it until it can influence the direction of your Six Sigma effort.
  3. Make it easy and beneficial to participate.
  4. Bring food.  Well, maybe bring food.  The message is one of creating a friendly environment for interaction.
  5. Create a culture of care and trust.  This is probably the most important of these five.
  6. Here are a few KM tools that I particularly like that seem to honor the principles above.

1. Open Space.  This is a wonderful face-to-face process that works well with 5-1000 people in one space.  It can also be used virtually.  Harrison Owens, Open Space Technology: a User’s Guide (San Francisco, Barrett-Kohler Publishers, Inc., 1997) is the best process descriptor for my money.  We’ve used it in many  environments, including training circle leaders in South Africa, developing a senior-friendly community in Canada, and training at a nonprofit board retreat.
2. Simplify.  This is the most widely deployed collaborative technology developed specifically for communities of practice.  It is a product of Tomoye of Ottawa, CA (
3. NewWorkSpaces.  This is a product just now being released by The Berkana Institute of Provo, Utah.  It is an excellent integration of the human processes required to create a community of care, and then to share, create, experiment with, and use knowledge to influence others.  My brilliant wife, Carole, is a co-designer.  Contact her at
As always, I am delighted to get your reactions.  In this particular article, I have barely scratched the surface of KM and its relationship to Six Sigma.  I would greatly appreciate other viewpoints.  I’m at support@

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