Quality eLine Newsletter
May 2004
Vol. 6, No. 5

Six Sigma and More: 
What We Learned in the 70s

by David R. Schwinn

Although Six Sigma is not a revolutionary movement, it does require significant, organizational change. Learning about that kind of change is an ongoing challenge, but we can learn from other “revolutionaries” as we go along. Keynote speaker for the Elkin R. Isaac Student Research Symposium at Albion College this week, for example, was Gloria Steinem, a 70-year old writer, feminist, social activist, and indeed, revolutionary. The theme of Ms. Steinem’s keynote was “What we learned in the 70s and how we should carry it into the future.” She made five primary points. Here they are.

We need to share personal stories. In our Six Sigma meetings, we so often dive right into the task at hand. What’s the problem? What’s the cause? Where’s the data? What’s the action plan? What's the status of our work? We forget to get to know one another. Then we are puzzled why people are not committed, question the direction we are taking in the hall after the meeting, and don’t follow through. Ms. Steinem closed this point with “If we are with people who listen, we think we have something to say.”

We need to start with a small group. Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, is frequently quoted, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Similarly, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her classic study of organizational change titled The Change Masters (NY, Simon & Schuster, 1983), pointed out the myth of change beginning with the pronouncement of a single leader. Her study showed that organizational change begins with a small group of people violating the existing norm. You’ve probably already started there. It’s also a good way to expand your Six Sigma effort.

There is power in naming ourselves and what we want to do. The namers of Six Sigma understood that very well. The only decision left is whether to create an organizational name for your Six Sigma effort that is unique to your organization. If your approach has elements different from what you can learn from the literature and what you can learn from typical Six Sigma training, you might want to take advantage of the pride, visibility, and power that comes from your very own name.

There is power in connections. The organizational research over the last twenty years that emphasizes organizations as living, social organisms rather than mechanistic machines reinforces the power of connections in an organization. An organism responds to outside attack by connecting its parts more strongly. That is the way it heals itself from disease. That is the way an organization successfully responds to a competitive attack. Unfortunately, it is also the way it responds to a successful innovation within itself. We even have a name for the phenomenon. It is called the “flavor of the month.” So, if you want to strengthen your Six Sigma effort, become more connected with those who are committed to it. But as you know, be careful as you are being brave. The organization’s tendency is to move on. And they may leave you behind.

The ends you get reflect the means you use. Just look around. Not a day goes by when we don’t read or hear about how violence begets more violence. My thoughtful wife, Carole, likes to say “You can’t expect to get participative change when you use coercive methods.” The carrot and stick are so ingrained in our psyche, we forget they are coercive. The week before last, I noticed that several members of my Organizational Ethics class left at the break. Since I give points for attendance based on a sign-up sheet that the students circulate at the beginning of the class, I thought that some of the students who stayed might feel unfairly treated. I decided to pose a question regarding the ethical implications of what happened in this week’s class. In the spirited discussion that followed, I was reminded that it was my assumption of the need for a carrot and stick approach to attendance that created the dilemma. I see the carrot and stick approach used everywhere in Six Sigma. What I was reminded of this week, is that it may or may not be necessary. But if it is to be effective, it must be fair. And fairness doesn’t come easy.

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


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