Vol. 11, No. 11
November 2009
PQ Systems
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Six Sigma and more:
David Schwinn advises us to
lighten up

Shortly before I started writing this month’s column, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Almost immediately, many people criticized the decision, saying he hasn’t done anything yet. I got that argument. So I decided to check out why the Nobel committee gave him the prize. In their official announcement, they said many nice things, but I was trying to find the essence of their rationale. Since I don’t know any of the members of the committee, I tried to pull out what they seemed to think was special. Here’s what I found:

“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.” (Obama’s Nobel win: Full citation by BBC News. Retrieved October 19, 2009, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8298689.stm.)

The word ‘hope’ stood out to me and I remembered that our friend and mentor, Meg Wheatley, wrote a piece on hope this spring in the Shambhala Sun. In her article, “The Place Beyond Fear and Hope,” Wheatley argues that hope is part of the human condition and that hope is what propels us into action (March 2009). Can Obama really give us hope when it is already part of who we are? At another time and place, I remember Meg Wheatley saying that we already know all the important stuff, but we forget. It’s OK to be reminded. Maybe that is what the Nobel committee thinks is important. But Meg has much more to say about hope.

She believes that hope and fear are inseparable partners. We all know deep inside ourselves that the action we take as a result of our hope may not yield what we want. Our experience tells us that, despite our best efforts, sometimes things don’t work out as planned. Sometimes we fail. We then become depressed and demoralized until hope arises again and with it its partner fear of failure. The hope Wheatley is describing is the hope for specific results. The fear she is describing is the fear that usually results in irrational behavior and those behaviors that we typically connect with fear...flight, fight, or, perhaps, freeze.

The theory behind Six Sigma tells us the same thing. Dr. Deming liked to say that everything is one of a kind. Maybe the corollary is we never hit our goals. Sometimes we exceed them. Sometimes, we fall short. We nearly always obsess about them. Dr. Deming wasn’t much for goals. Six Sigma loves goals. My memory about goals was that when we hit them, we got rewarded. And I mean hit them. We strived mightily to avoid exceeding them, lest the goals given us; yes, GIVEN to us would be larger next year. When we missed them, we got punished...unless upper management really liked us. Then we were forgiven. Sometimes we had to fudge the numbers or slight some really important, but not measured, aspect of our jobs so we could meet our goals. Seems a little silly doesn’t it?

Meg Wheatley suggests we get beyond hope and fear. She quotes Thomas Merton, the famed mystic, counseling a friend:

Do not depend on the hope of results …you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people... In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

Do I think we should abandon goals? Not yet, but we could certainly lighten up a bit. I think the fear and other negative emotions that come from expectations of specific results are not useful. I continue to think goals that come from knowledge and that are truly shared are worthwhile, but the larger intention is more important. Sometimes we will achieve our goals, sometimes we will not, but we can always learn something, reassess, and continue the journey. Again, from Meg Wheatley:

...I’ve noted that those who endure, who have stamina for the long haul and become wiser in their actions over time, are those who are not attached to outcomes. They don’t seek security in plans or accomplishments. They exchange certainty for curiosity, fear for generosity. ...people become engaged in figuring out what works instead of needing to be right or worrying about how to avoid failure. Whenever they discover something that does work, there’s a huge rush of energy, often accompanied by laughter.

You can read Meg’s article at www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/BeyondHopeandFear.pdf.

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


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