Vol. 11, No. 3

March 2009

PQ Systems
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Six Sigma and more:
Listening, kindness, and pragmatism

This month’s theme comes from the recent intermingling of my communication and ethics courses. I was reminded of the importance of asking questions and listening as ways of being aware and kind. I was reminded of how often we forget to be thankful for the information and insight we receive. Finally, I was reminded of how interrelated thankfulness and kindness are and that both of them are so related to happiness and good results.

I teach an advanced management communications course. My students expect they will learn how to improve their speaking and writing skills. They are surprised when they find how much effort I apply toward better listening. Among other things, I remind them to be active listeners... to paraphrase back to the speaker what they heard in order to check their understanding. It is a simple thing and relatively easy to do, but so countercultural that I seldom experience a student actually doing it without prompting when I ask them to listen.

One of my primary personal listening disabilities is thinking that some people with whom I’ve had some experience have nothing to offer worth listening to. I unconsciously stop listening to them. To overcome that particular disability, I try to remind myself to use a tool I am told is an old Chinese proverb, "Everyone is my teacher." When I am aware enough to remind myself and act on that proverb, I always learn or am reminded of something worthwhile.

There is another phenomenon related to listening that is, in these times of extreme difficulty, worth remembering. It is about the broader topic of learning. There are two kinds, first-order learning and second-order learning. The best description I’ve heard of the two levels follows:

Think of your mind as a filing cabinet. First-order learning is similar to when information comes to you and you file it in the appropriate folder for later use. Second-order learning is when you take in information that is so different from your world view that the filing cabinet blows up. You must, then, start over and recreate your filing cabinet. Second-order learning happens only a few times in a lifetime for most of us and, when it happens, it can be difficult and even painful. It is also almost always breathtakingly developmental.

It is difficult to take in information that does not fit into our file cabinet. That difficulty is mostly unconscious. A myth about Native Americans asserts that they were unable to see Columbus’ ships when they first came to our shores. Jamshid Gharajedaghi, a brilliant systems thinker, likes to say that we cannot see problems that we don’t know how to solve. My intention, of course, is to try to be conscious of and open to input that doesn’t fit into my file cabinet.

Let’s now move to one of the interrelationships among listening and being aware, thankful, and kind. I use an old video about listening in my class. I am always struck by the statement in the video that listening is an act of compassion. That statement makes listening important on yet another level. It is an act of kindness. It is nice that listening is a kindness, since we nearly always receive something important, even if we don’t like it. In the world of Six Sigma, for example, we remember that mistakes are treasures and bad news is opportunity. Remembering to be thankful for the information we receive does four things that we sometimes forget. It is kind, it helps us live more robustly, it makes us happy (Dan Baker and Cameron Smith, What Happy People Know, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York: 2003), and it encourages the speaker to give us even more information and ideas.

This idea of thankfulness leads us right back to the kindness and compassion which are so much a part of listening. We recently visited our local Buddhist monastery where I heard that Buddhism is a pragmatic belief system, perhaps akin to Humanism. That really took this idea of kindness full circle for me.

The Buddhists believe in Karma... cause and effect. Sounds pragmatic to me. Also sounds like Six Sigma. They believe that what you do will get results and will come back to you. Specifically, they advocate thinking, speaking, and acting in a way that benefits yourself and others. Christianity asks “Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” Islam entreats us to “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.” (Jeffrey Moses, Oneness: Great Principles sharedby all Religions, Fawcett Columbine, New York: 1989) The author and Humanist, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote, “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.’” (Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Dell Publishing: 1965)

For me, the lesson for our Six Sigma efforts is to be aware, be thankful, and be compassionate. It will get us information, ideas, happiness, kindness, and results.

As always, I treasure your thoughts. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.


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