Quality eLine Newsletter
February 2005
Vol. 7, No. 02

Six Sigma and More: 
David Schwinn urges us not to give up the game

by David R. Schwinn

Recently I was looking over one of those delightful holiday letters you get from friends and relatives. This particular one included a piece by Howard Zinn. You will remember Howard Zinn as the fellow who wrote the brilliant A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003). The piece is entitled “The Optimism of Uncertainty.” I don’t know where it was published. It begins:

“In this awful world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power, how do I manage to stay involved and seemingly happy? I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate, life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least the possibility of changing the world.”

He goes on to cite the utter unpredictability of the world throughout time: the overthrow of the czar in Russia; the seemingly invincible German tanks overrunning Russia and Europe; Hitler huddled in his bunker waiting to die; the Chinese Communist revolution; the cold war standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union; and, the rise and fall of apartheid in South Africa. Just when the dark powers of a few seem invulnerable, a few other people with little or no formal power seem to come together with a few others and suddenly the world changes. Zinn concludes:

“Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t ‘win,’ there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile.”

Zinn’s piece reminded me of the power of the positive. It also reminded me of the sticking point in most of the hundreds of “Six Sigma” projects in which I have been involved. The sticking point is almost never the math. Of course, the math is essential, but what is most difficult about the math is getting relevant data in the first place…a matter of simple logic and a little persuasion. The sticking point is usually the peoples’ inability to get “out of the box.” Teams almost invariably face their greatest difficulty with the innovative thinking required to come up with a new way of doing that which they have always done. Finding an alternative to the status quo, self-reinforcing, existing process or system seems impossible. Of course, Six Sigma has tools like brainstorming that can help us get “out of the box,” but I thought of a couple of approaches to change that may not be in your toolbox and seem to be more consistent with Zinn’s theme.

The first one that came to mind is Appreciative Inquiry. This approach involves remembering a positive experience associated with the theme in mind and using that recollection to build an action plan to make things better. As I understand it, Appreciative Inquiry was developed by David Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve. If you want to learn more about this approach to change, go to www.aicommons.org or search the web for Appreciative Inquiry.

The second approach that came to mind is the core process of my wife Carole’s organization, The Berkana Institute (www.berkana.org). The process – Name, Connect, Nurture, Illuminate – shows up in all of the work the Institute does, including supporting life-affirming leaders around the world, conducting learning journeys to places like South Africa, Zimbabwe, and India, and the consulting they do with nonprofit, community, and governmental organizations. The approach involves first noticing and naming whatever is going on in the world that is consistent with the highest aspirations of the people, groups or organizations with which they are working. Second, they encourage and facilitate connection among those who share these aspirations. Third, they nurture those efforts, helping them find other resources that could provide assistance. Then they help to illuminate or shed light on these efforts by telling their stories and sharing new knowledge, encouragement, and hope with others. This is a continuing process, not unlike Shewhart and Deming’s Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, which has a positive, self-reinforcing spiral impact on change.

As always, I welcome and appreciate your input. I’m at support@pqsystems.com

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