Vol. 8, No. 2

February 2006

PQ Systems

New Quality Workbench

Quality Quiz: With a video!

Six Sigma

Data in everyday life

Bytes and pieces

FYI: Current releases


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Six Sigma and more:
Lessons from Community

Recently, my wife, Carole, and I helped lead a large scale community development event in Grand Rapids, MI. One of the key leaders of the Grand Rapids effort toward continual improvement is Fred Keller, a very bright and successful local businessman. He kicked off the event by observing that community development is uniquely challenging because there is no boss.

His remark reminded me of an observation Carole and I have made in our own community development work around the world. In community work, people show up only if they think they can contribute to its improvement. In an organization, people show up because they are expected to. And that is one of the very things that makes a subtle but profound difference between organizational and community development. We all know from the legions of research and our own experience that people in organizations generally do what they are told to do. We also know that most of their effort is discretionary. They may do what is required in 10-20 percent of their time on the job, but the rest of the time they do whatever they want. That’s why organizations do silly things like monitoring Internet and email use and making up rules that keep people at their workstations for no particular reason. Obviously, if employees thought their work was important, they would need none of these incentives. I know that people are more complex than this analysis implies, but I believe there is much truth in it.

If people don’t show up at a community event, you know, as a leader, that you’ve done something wrong. As an organizational manager, it’s more difficult to know if you are tapping into that 80-90 percent of discretionary effort your employees have to give to the organization. The lessons learned in community development work may help leaders tap into that large reservoir of talent and effort that exists in all our organizations. Here’s what we’ve learned and how it might apply to Six Sigma organizations:

Good Leadership: In our experience, community development leadership comes from organizations that are committed to raising the voices of the people and mobilizing their creative energies on the behalf of the common good. Community leaders must have the credibility, courage, resources, and autonomy to act responsibly and independently. Wouldn’t leadership like this in our organizations make a difference?

Comprehensive Orientation: In a community, as in any organization, it is important to be clear about the size and scope of the system you are attempting to improve. Take on the largest system you think you can influence. Understanding what that means requires some effort. In our work we try to examine the system we are working with from as many perspectives as time and money will allow. For example, we examine mission, products, services, culture, structure, and throughput, decision-making, and learning processes. We also want to know how power, knowledge, wealth, beauty, and values are robustly generated and distributed. That’s a good start toward trying to define the size and scope of the system with which we will work. Contrast that with the typical downsizing approach to organizational change these days, which typically considers only structure. This approach often results in higher, not lower, costs. In addition, Six Sigma efforts all too frequently focus simply on throughput processes. How about looking at the bigger picture?

Multi-level Engagement: Community development initiatives must meet people where they are in terms of their world views, their prior experiences with public participation, their social and economic capacities, their fear and alienation, and, in particular, in terms of what they most care about in the community. Invitations to participate must be extended over and over again, and the processes and environments in which people gather must reflect the world that organizers wish to bring forth. As I write this, I am reminded of the invaluable opportunity General Motors has right now to engage the many GM employees in a Job Bank in the Lansing area. Those people and other laid off GM employees understand General Motors and could be mobilized to recreate a great company. How about genuinely, considerately, and intelligently engaging ALL our stakeholders in our Six Sigma efforts?

Internal and External Resources: Comprehensive community initiatives rely both on a community's own resources and strengths and draw extensively on outside resource. Of particular importance is recognizing, respecting, and making use of local individuals and organizations with a history of using their expertise and resources on behalf of the common good. I grew up at General Motors and Ford. At the time, we were among the biggest and most powerful organizations in the world. We were a little arrogant and, as one of the managers, so was (am?) I. I questioned the need for outside assistance. But I have come to believe that an outsider brings a different perspective to the situation. That perspective is likely to be useful. Even if that outsider only tells the organization what it already knows, that outsider may get the emperor to realize he has no clothes. Maybe nothing will come of it, but, in the larger picture, I think it is worth the cost. Dr. Deming sure made a difference at Ford, at least while I was there. I have made another observation since I left Ford. Employees who are generally considered trouble makers are usually people who are unusually bright and passionate about making whatever system in which they reside work better. They are angry because they have been frustrated and/or unrecognized in their efforts to make a better system. They are a valuable, untapped resource. How do we honor our history while simultaneously recruiting both key internal and external resources to help in our Six Sigma efforts?

Praxis: Community development initiatives must engage people in an explicit, ongoing process of praxis, or what Paulo Freire describes as action and reflection to transform ourselves and our world. I think praxis is a fundamental part of Six Sigma. I do, however, wish that in the desire to create something new, the designers of Six Sigma would have just stuck with PDSA instead of going with DMAIC. I think it subtlety loses some of the continual improvement power of both praxis and PDSA. How do we use praxis in our OVERALL Six Sigma efforts?

Short-term Gains and Long-term Investment: Our community development experience has shown that concrete, visible, short-term gains, while insufficient, are absolutely necessary. That short-term gains are necessary is crystal clear to those of us in Six Sigma. Wall Street demands it. The problem is that those demands are considered so important that we sometimes lose sight of the long-term investment that is equally important if an organization is to survive. There are also those who think that long-term survival is not important. I don’t think I agree. Sometimes those people go to jail. Are we keeping an intelligent balance between our short-term and long-term perspectives?

Keep the Faith: John Dewey once wrote “At the end, as at the beginning, the democratic method is as fundamentally simple and as immensely difficult as the energetic, unflagging, unceasing creation of an ever-present, new road upon which we can walk together” (Hickman, L., ed. Reading Dewey: Interpretations for a Postmodern Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998). Setting out on that road takes extraordinary faith in people, in the future, and in one’s fellow travelers. How are we keeping the faith?

I hope you find the wisdom we’ve gained from community development work a worthy addition to your Six Sigma effort. If you want to know more, refer to an article, “A Call for Learning Democracy,” Carole and I wrote for Shikshantar: The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. The book is titled, Unfolding Learning Societies: Experiencing the Possibilities (2002). In case the book is difficult to find, the ISBN is 81-88101-05-2. Our chapter is also online at http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/ls3_schwinn.htm.

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

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