Quality eLine Newsletter
January 2004
Vol. 6, No. 1

Six Sigma and More: 
Differentiation and ‘corporate aikido’

by David R. Schwinn

As several of us were recently discussing new ways to approach managing and leading, Scottie Putnam, a wonderfully creative friend and colleague, handed me a book, Corporate Aikido (Robert Pino, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1999). Pino suggests that destroying the competition by resisting or counterattacking is not desirable. Aikido is an Eastern martial arts form that redirects the opponent’s energy so that it can do no harm.

That theme struck a chord. My first recollection came from a story in a similar, but even more profound book, The Te of Piglet (Benjamin Hoff, New York, Penguin books, 1992):

A horse was tied outside a shop in a narrow Chinese village street. Whenever anyone would try to walk by, the horse would kick him. Before long, a small crowd of villagers had gathered near the shop, arguing about how best to get past the dangerous horse. Suddenly, someone came running. ‘The Old Master is coming,’ he shouted. ‘He’ll know what to do!’

The crowd watched eagerly as the Old Master came around the corner, saw the horse, turned, and walked down another street.

Another recollection immediately followed -- from Marketing 101. Avoid direct competition. Find a niche. Differentiate yourself in the marketplace. Quality, of course, became a differentiator in the 1970s and 1980s. Many Six Sigma advocates believe that it is still a differentiator. Others say speed and price are now the key differentiators. Others say flexibility and ecological sustainability are the current differentiators. I think differentiation is critical to success. I also think customers will know it when they see it for a particular product, service, and/or organization. Until they tell you by their purchasing decisions, it’s a crap shoot to figure out how to differentiate yourself.

Well, maybe it’s not quite a crap shoot. Ford avoided going out of business in the early 1980s by carefully watching market share shift toward Toyota, analyzing why it was happening, and committing to improving quality, Toyota’s differentiating characteristic. Pino would call that the Aikido strategy of rendering the opponent’s power redundant. That is a good way to slow down, stop, or even turn around the market loss, but, I think, it is probably not enough.

Another approach toward a strategy for differentiation is to look for opportunities and trends. Look for what’s hot. For example, every year Entrepreneur magazine publishes a “What’s hot” list of new businesses. Futurists, economists, authors, and other observers and soothsayers are always examining what’s happening, and projecting the future. Some of them are probably worth checking out. Alvin Toffler comes to mind.

Here are a few things that are happening today. Homeland Security is hot. So is the rebuilding of Iraq. Information technology is not yet a mature industry. HIV/AIDS is a challenge to which the world seems to be increasingly sensitive. The covers of the newsweeklies frequently are examining trends such as more people meditating, more people having babies later in life, more people with more than one job, increasing levels of poverty, and increasing international trade.

Another way to find out what’s going on is to talk to your friends, neighbors, relatives, employees, and especially your customers, to find out what’s changing and challenging for them. Any of these approaches could lead to a new opportunity or a new problem to solve.
Blend these observations with an internal examination of your competencies. If those competencies are core, the journey will be easier. But difficult journeys may be more interesting and more fruitful.

So differentiate yourself by making change in those areas the customer is most likely to care about. Change your products, your services, and your processes. But don’t just think about your core throughput processes. Change your back room processes, your decision-making processes, and your learning processes. Six Sigma, as I’ve said before, is a powerful approach to accomplishing these changes. But as Robert Pino points out, it may not be enough. Six Sigma improves that which already exists, but that may not be enough to differentiate you in the customers’ eyes.

So while you’re pursuing Six Sigma, be ever ready to create new markets, new products, new services, new processes, new structures, and even new missions and values, or you may become nearly perfect at something no one cares about, viewpoints. 

As always, I look forward to your comments and questions. I’m at support@pqsystems.com


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