Six Sigma and more:
Looking for the extraordinary
A few weeks ago, we were fortunate enough to attend “A Conversation with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.” As you know, he was the South African cleric and activist who rose to worldwide fame as an opponent of apartheid, winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. What most struck me was his ability to see the goodness in human beings despite all the pain and devastation he has seen in his life. He observed that “We are crazy... in America... using a truck to drag a person to death simply because he was gay... and simultaneously nominate Barak Obama as President of the United States,” he also noticed that “there are no ordinary people... human beings are made for goodness.”
As he talked about diversity, he taught me something I had not thought much about before. He noticed that we have a need to create tribes of people who are like us. He suggested that need comes from our evolutionary roots. In order to defend ourselves from the creatures that wanted to destroy us, we—that is, early humankind—had to band together with people close to us for our safety and security. Those needs for safety and security are not very high on our needs hierarchy. For example, we remember that Abraham Maslow ranked needs from highest to lowest as follows:
Maslow noticed that, as the lower level needs become satisfied, they become less important and we focus more on the higher level needs. But it is not always a simple one-way journey. As circumstances change, we can move down that hierarchy. There seems to be some relation between where we are on the hierarchy and how strong our need for tribal behavior is. I also think that the further we are up Maslow’s hierarchy, the larger and more diverse our tribe can be. Maybe as we move up the hierarchy, our tribe can move from our co-workers to our department to our company to our industry to our economy to the human race and even on to all sentient beings.
Although tribal behavior within tribes, I think, can provide the connection that helps us move up the need hierarchy, tribal behavior among tribes is frequently destructive. I think of wars among nations, discrimination among races, and calamitous battles among political parties, for example. I also think competition among businesses is sometimes destructive to stockholders, customers, employees, and the environment. But worse than that, many of our organizations have tribal conflict among departments, among managers who are trying to get ahead, and historically between management and labor. It is difficult, for example, not to see the word “brotherhood” in the mission of most labor unions.
It is in this internal tribalism that Tutu and Maslow have something to offer our Six Sigma efforts. Tutu has noticed that “We are all extraordinary.” If we notice first that everyone in our tribe is extraordinary, maybe our performance would improve. If we noticed that those just outside our tribe are extraordinary, some of our internal conflict might turn into cooperation. Considering our suppliers to be extraordinary could enhance every aspect of the products and services we buy. Thinking of our customers as extraordinary is likely to improve the offerings we make to them. Understanding that our competitors are extraordinary might remind us that head-on competition is almost never the best business strategy. And remembering that there are extraordinary people beyond our industry and even more who are not yet born, might help us make the world a better place, as Tutu suggests that human beings are really about.
And Maslow reminds us that our need for tribalism might be tied to our ability to get beyond our needs for safety and security to those higher level needs. We know that the world is changing. We can hope for a return to the good old days when we had a safer and more secure environment, or we can take advantage of the opportunities that this ever-changing world is offering us and simultaneously reach out to those extraordinary people whom we are just beginning to know.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts, reactions, and questions. I’m at email@example.com.
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