Quality eLine Newsletter
June 2005
Vol. 7, No. 06

Six Sigma and More: 
Avoiding 'no-ing' ourselves and others

by David R. Schwinn

Dr. W. Edwards Deming frequently said that his Management Obligation #8: Drive out Fear was the most difficult obligation for any leader to fulfill. I have certainly found that to be true.

I was reminded of that recently, as I was working with a relatively small organization. The people in the organization are brilliant, and its mission is grand and heroic. Individually and in small groups, the people are doing exceptional work. But together, they seem crippled. This phenomenon has had them (and me) perplexed and frustrated for some time. The phenomenon is apparent to all, and is now out in the open for exploration. As yet, no one individual has been able to adequately explain its complexity and consequences, and the collective has not yet been able to work it through in face-to-face conversations.

Last night it struck me that this dilemma may have some similarities to the culture I entered in the early 1970s as a new employee at Ford Motor Company. The common characteristic seems to be the fear thing. As we all know, fear is irrational, and tends to take us into our reptilian brain’s default “fight or flight” mode. It shuts us down. We are frequently unable to clearly articulate the cause for our fear or even recognize its existence. Sometimes, we are more anxious than fearful, but the consequences are quite similar. Here are my observations about the similarly present anxiety/fear factor in these two organizations, which are in most other ways very different organizations.

My entry into Ford was toward the end of the reign of Henry Ford II. As most everyone agrees, he was a brilliant auto executive. He took a company that was on the edge of disaster and made it the very viable #2 auto company in the world. I never met the man, so my observations come from the myth (using Joseph Campbell’s definition of myth) that pervaded the culture of the company at that time. One of the things that Mr. Ford was fond of saying was “That’s my name on the building.” That phrase manifested itself in a belief that Mr. Ford ultimately made all the important decisions.

I remember a story that I heard third-hand about a meeting at Ford World Headquarters attended by most of the company’s vice-presidents. The meeting occurred during that time when we first became aware that some of the Japanese imports had significantly higher quality and lower cost than our facing cars. These top executives felt powerless to do anything about it, because they felt that they could not get the approval to go forward. People were reluctant to offer up ideas to Mr. Ford for fear he would reject their ideas and, perhaps, them. You may remember the firing of Lee Iacocca, another of the auto industry’s most brilliant executives. As a result, people up and down the ladder throughout the culture were reluctant to come forward with or take forward new ideas. The most common responses to new ideas as they were presented and moved up the chain of command included:

  • That'll never work
  • Let's try another tactic
  • It costs too much
  • We don't have time
  • I think that's the wrong flavor
  • It's too complex
  • It won't fly with (fill in the blank)
  • Let's get a committee to work on it
  • They'll never believe the financials
  • I need evidence that General Motors is doing it successfully.

Throw in the occasional, “Over my dead body,” and you are well on your way to a rapid organizational death spiral. The anxiety/fear factor didn’t quite shut down the company, but it progressed at the speed of General Motors, which wasn’t a good thing. They got along, though, at least as long as General Motors and Chrysler were the only other players in the game.

In the small nonprofit organization that prompted this reflection on my Ford experience, the anxiety/fear appears to come from a different, yet similar, source. The founder of the organization has a history of outstanding accomplishments, and extremely high standards around what’s right and what’s wrong. These standards now permeate the culture. The high standards, however, are closely held and almost entirely implicit, rather than shared and explicit. Thus, I would propose, the culture demands a level of quality based on fuzzy “do the right things right” logic, and the measure of performance is “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Again, I’m reminded of how often Dr. Deming called for operational definitions of quality so that everyone clearly understood the necessary quality levels. The lack of those shared and explicit definitions leaves everyone guessing. The leaders of the organization in question are quite aware of the need to shift the culture, I believe, and are consciously trying to help create the conditions in which everyone can flourish. The process of developing clear, shared and explicit standards and indicators (quantitative and qualitative) of quality, however, is difficult and not the least bit intuitive, as you all know.

The high mission, standards, expectations and potential of both of these very different organizations have attracted extremely capable and passionate people. But their ability to do their best work, individually and collectively, is dampened and frustrated when it comes up against this insufficiently defined level of quality. Both organizations have been – and, perhaps, still are – poised on the brink of self-destruction. The folks in the small organization, unlike those at Ford, have not been afraid for their jobs, but they may have been afraid of getting yet another rejection. More importantly, they may have deeply disappointed and saddened by their individual and collective failure to achieve the organization’s vision and mission, one that they all have held so dear. And so, the spiral of doing the same things over and over, while expecting a different result, continues.

Both Ford and this small organization, along with huge numbers of all kinds of organizations around the world, I believe, have been in the past, are now, or at serious risk of becoming no-no cultures.

So here’s my message to all you Six Sigma leaders out there. Avoid saying “no” in its many intended and unintended, explicit and implicit forms. Respond, instead, by saying “yes” to what’s possible, asking how you can help, and what you can do to work together to make new ideas and new ways of working successful. I am reminded of the approach I used to take with eager entrepreneurs who would visit my office looking for help. Knowing that many of their ideas were extremely fragile and not wanting them to fail, I would ask questions and give suggestions that would guide them to more deeper consideration through a rigorous discipline of due diligence. I would never tell them right out of the box that their ideas wouldn’t fly. Rather, I would commit myself to helping them make their dreams come true, which quite often resulted in an entirely different or significantly revised – and quite often highly successful – new business venture.

Here’s the bottom line for me. Six Sigma has been deemed successful mostly because it drives down cost. In the current environment, reduced cost usually translates into lay-offs, downsizing, or some other form of forced reductions. And, the standard of living in this country has been steadily dropping for most of us over the past 25 years. I believe that the people who work in our organizations are already scared or at least a little bit anxious. Let’s not add to this state of the world with more and more, flat-out “no’s” that put us on a spiral of decline. Instead, let’s offer the kind of “yes’s” that create a wide open field of possibility and potential through rigor, discipline, and due diligence. And maybe even throw in a little bit of love while we’re at it.

As always, I treasure your thoughts and comments. I'm especially eager to hear your stories of experiences with both "yes" and "no" cultures. I’m at support@pqsystems.com

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