Six Sigma and more:
We recently lost two great American authors, Kurt Vonnegut and David Halberstam. I liked them both because they told the truth. At least their truth agreed with my truth and it seems like the truth of a great many other readers.
I first became aware of Kurt Vonnegut in my late teens, a time when I seriously began wondering what was happening to the “God is love” world I believed in my earlier years. Vonnegut seemed to be asking the same kinds of questions I was asking; questions like what are we doing here, why do we treat each other so badly, and why does this God I grew up with permit so much pain and suffering? His answers frequently didn’t help much except to know that I wasn’t the only one struggling with these issues. Maybe that is one of the reasons his critics were frequently as loud as his admirers. It was years later that I found what I most cherish him for.
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outset, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” That comes from his 1965 novel, God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater (Dell Publishing, NY, NY). I think he got it right.
David Halberstam, on the other hand, was as much a reporter as an author. But like Vonnegut, Halberstam had his detractors. His Pulitzer Prize winning reporting that preceded The Best and the Brightest (Ballantine Books, NY, NY: 1969) drew severe criticism from the U.S military and administration for his accusation that they were lying to the American public about the Vietnam War. The Best and the Brightest helped us all understand how Vietnam could have happened with brilliant, well-intentioned leadership. He again helped us understand leadership failure when he described in The Reckoning (William Morrow and Company, NY, NY: 1986) the failure of the domestic auto industry to stay competitive in a global economy. I was at Ford world headquarters when he researched the book. I think he got it right.
Readers appreciated it when these two told the truth. But I think there’s more to it than that. The late Kathy Dannemiller, an organizational development consultant colleague of mine, became famous by stating that everyone’s truth is their truth. By not softening the edges of her own truth, Kathy sometimes greatly offended other people. The resulting pushback was painful to her. Although I sometimes questioned how she said it, I think she got it right. A final example of truth telling arrived just a few weeks ago.
Every year the traditional leaders of Michigan get together for a summit at Mackinac Island to discuss the state of the state. You may know that General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are the primary economic drivers of the state. And you probably know they are not doing so well these days. The news from this year’s summit that most struck me came from comments by Bill Ford. Bill Ford is the CEO of Ford Motor Company and great grandson of the fellow who started the company. Mr. Ford shared a wish that he had stayed the course. You see, when he took over the reins of Ford a few years ago, he wanted to turn Ford green. He was roundly criticized by his industry peers and privately counseled by his new subordinates that he had a bad idea. He was persuaded that his truth was wrong. He backed off. Ford now has much catching up to do in producing fuel efficient, low emission cars.
The message for me is this. Tell your truth. Do it thoughtfully as Vonnegut did. Do it with due diligence as Halberstam did. Do it with passion as Dannemiller did. And do it with courage. If your idea is important and, especially, if it is new or different, people will naturally resist it. If you yield to their resistance, you may be very sorry as is Bill Ford. Telling the truth is dangerous territory. I think it is worth it…to you, to your organization, and to your Six Sigma effort.
As always, I welcome your input and questions. I’m at
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