Quality eLine Newsletter
May 2005
Vol. 7, No. 05

Six Sigma and More: 
Prophets of quality and returning to the source

by David R. Schwinn

Those with nearly every kind of religious conviction understand the role that prophets play in their traditions; one religious writer has suggested that the key prophets of all religions leave somewhat incomplete messages, and that as followers try to use the prophet’s teachings to deal with real life issues, they must try to articulate the prophet’s intent, filling in the message, as it were. It may be, the writer suggests, that these followers do not always get it right, but that they nonetheless document their interpretations in a way that defines them as the Truth. Interpretations of the prophet’s intentions become ingrained as the only Truth to some.

In somewhat the same way, leaders have been identified as “prophets of quality.” Let’s start with Walter Shewhart, who developed control charts and, according to Dr. Deming, a whole new branch of statistics, called analytic statistics. Two people who worked with Shewhart have also been identified as prophets, Dr. Joseph Juran and Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Dr. Juran explained how to use quality as the focus for nearly every aspect of an organization. Dr. Deming articulated the concept of continual improvement and Profound Knowledge. He also developed 14 Obligations for Management and the Deadly Diseases as ways to specifically guide western management.

Dr. Kaoru Ishikawa took these original teachings to create a very practical body of knowledge for use by Japanese workers and their foremen. By the late 1970s, his concepts of encouraging and supporting the people doing the work to improve the processes in and with which they work was gaining popularity all over the world.

Although I don’t know the details of how Six Sigma was developed at Motorola, I suspect it was based on how the teachings of those prophets might have been applied to the company itself. Much of what is described today as Six Sigma is another generation removed from Motorola’s original conception. Maybe your version of Six Sigma is considered the Truth. Maybe what your organization calls Six Sigma is an improvement on the original concepts. Maybe your Six Sigma could greatly benefit from going back to the teachings of those original prophets.

I suspect the latter is more likely to be true; reconsidering sources is often fruitful when it comes to applying fundamental principles. My recommendation is to get back to the teachings of those original four prophets. They were pretty smart. And you may begin to re-think the concepts that have been interpreted as sources and assumptions throughout your Six Sigma life.

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

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