Vol. 11, No. 4
April 2009
PQ Systems
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Six Sigma and more:
David Schwinn urges you to ‘let your light shine’

I recently heard President Obama being criticized for asking us to disregard the day-to-day fluctuations of Wall Street. Don’t people understand variation?

I recently heard people say that taking on the economy, energy, health care, and education is too much at once. Don’t people understand the Pareto principle and systems thinking?

The answer to both those questions is “I guess not.” I always remember something our friend, Mike Cleary, told me years and years ago, “Everything is impossible or obvious.” Mike, of course, meant that if we don’t know something, we either tend to not know we don’t know it or consider it so difficult or insignificant that we don’t try to understand it. On the other hand, once we’ve grasped a concept, we tend to think everyone else also grasps it. These reflections caused me to remember that those of us who are part of the Six Sigma community not only know how to do design of experiments, control charts, cause and effect diagrams, and Pareto charts but we also think differently from other people. We have a different wisdom, and different world view, a different perspective. Dr. Deming, before the Six Sigma movement, called it profound knowledge (W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Cambridge, MA: 1993). He categorized profound knowledge into four categories:

  • Appreciation for a system
  • Knowledge about variation
  • Theory of knowledge
  • Psychology

We have learned even more since those days, but it’s a good place to start.

We know the difference between common-cause and special-cause variation and what to do when we see either. We know how to gather and analyze data, especially numerical data. From systems theory, we know that everything is connected and that disconnection or silos, for example, create dysfunction or, at least, sub-optimization. We know that people are not just interested in their own self interest. They are also generally interested in the common good. We know that they intuitively understand that dialogue is more productive and, by the way, less destructive, than discussion or debate. We know that fast, accurate feedback with clear objectives and appropriate, non-punitive reaction is a crucial way to achieve learning and improvement. And we know that sometimes incremental improvement just isn’t enough. Sometimes, innovation and reinvention are required.

All this said, I’m asking all of us to remember that people outside the Six Sigma movement are likely to see the world from a perspective different from ours. Those people are likely, by the way, to include the management of your own organization. Many probably intuitively understand these concepts but have no language for it. Maybe they think they are alone in their perspectives and, therefore question their validity. Maybe, like the people on Wall Street and in the media, they are paid to act as though every variation is special-cause variation and it means something. So here’s my idea. Spread the word. Let people know how you view the world. You don’t have to use Six Sigma dogma or even its language. Just explain profound knowledge or whatever you want to call our common wisdom in a way that makes sense and serves your new audience.

Explain to your organization’s executives, for example, that nearly every number that is important to the management of your organization lends itself to being on a control chart. Try tracking sales, cost of sales, and net income, for example, and explain how the use of those charts would have resulted in better decisions in the past. Whenever the media reports common cause variation as if it is special cause variation, contact the writer and offer to explain variation to them. You may even become a statistical advisor to them. That would be a real value to us all, since most schools still focus on descriptive and inferential statistics rather than analytic statistics.

Communicate systems theory. Watch for silo behavior in your organization and explain how it creates sub-optimization. Since one of the many perspectives we hold in common is continuous improvement, we forget the rest of the world, frequently including our bosses, interprets continual improvement as personal criticism. So you may want to use the strategy my wife, Carole, used to use called “mud on the president.” She continually sent readings, interviews, videos, and other media that represented profound knowledge to her boss hoping that something would stick. Sometimes she would arrange speakers or trips in order for her boss to encounter someone besides herself who would carry the message. You can also go outside your organization.

Explain to organizations within your community that they need not compete for limited resources. If they cooperate, they can both better serve their constituency and improve their joint ability to obtain the resources they need to do their work. Explain to anyone who will listen that poor and expensive medical care leads to poor learning that leads to people who have trouble creating and performing the jobs of the future. Explain how the ineffective costs of these systems and the high and unpredictable costs of fossil fuel lead to wars, economic downturns, and fiscal deficits. And don’t forget that good data analysis and reasonable scientific models lead us to believe that increased use of fossil fuel, a nonrenewable resource, leads us to continuing world wide conflict which continues to cost us in money and lives and to global warming that is likely to create millions more refugees and more misery and conflict in the world.

Using your knowledge of psychology, explain to your organizational executives that the real strength of your organization is in the untapped knowledge, skills, and creativity of the people in your organization. Help them remember that everyone not only wants to take care of themselves but they want to serve a larger, noble purpose. Remind them that, for most of us, making more money is not a noble purpose. Help your elected officials to understand that, given the data, people are likely to respond intelligently. Remind them that dialogue helps find common ground and meet the needs of the citizens. Debate usually just helps them beat the other party. Suggest that maybe serving the citizens is better than beating the other party. Remind them that when they gather citizen input, the citizens want to see what they said.

The last frame for our knowledge is what Dr. Deming called the theory of knowledge. Your management may not yet understand that you can use Six Sigma to get Green. Explain it to them. Help your local medical care professionals understand that it is in everyone’s best interest to reduce their medical errors rather than cover them up. Offer to help. ASQ, as I understand it, has already started up a voluntary effort to help medical care professionals use quality to improve the system. You already know that the lawyers will get in the way. Maybe a trick we used to use at Ford will work. Knowing that a prudent lawyer will almost always tell us that we should not do anything even remotely risky from a legal liability perspective, we didn’t ask. We asked HOW to do what we wanted to do, not whether we should do it or not.

Wow! This has been a long column and it’s only scratched the surface regarding what we know and how it could be applied in places where people don’t share our perspective, knowledge, and skills. Here’s the deal. Remember that the world view we have, being Six Sigma professionals, is probably not the world view of many others in the world. I happen to think that if they held it, many of our problems would be solved or, at least, reduced. So let “your little light shine,” bur remember that it’s not all that little.

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


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