Vol. 12, No. 3
March 2010
PQ Systems
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Six Sigma and more:
Six Sigma learning from improv

Last week, I attended a meeting of Community of Learners, an informal group of organization development (OD) professionals in southeast Michigan. Our learning experience this month was led by Andrew Bennett, an excellent OD professional, an improvisational actor, and a brilliant magician, among other things. Andrew had agreed to help us learn a little about improv because many of us expected that improv could inform our OD practices. We were right…and it can also inform our Six Sigma practice.

Andrew introduced nine principles and practices. They are:

  • Warm up. Be present and start by connecting or reconnecting with the others who are present.

  • Say “yes, and.” Take in as deeply as possible whatever another provides. Avoid negating what is said. Try to stay with the theme of what another person has provided. Simply add to it. This sounds a little like good, old fashioned brainstorming.

  • Don’t prepare. I heard this as “Hold the vision and trust the universe to help,” a quote that has inaccurately been attributed to Goethe, the famous German writer. I like it anyway. It also sounds a lot like one of Harrison Owen’s four principles, “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have” (Open Space Technology, Berrett-Koehler Publisher, Inc., San Francisco: 1997). No matter what, I always think clear direction and intent will take us farther with greater efficiency than detailed, inflexible plans.

  • Pay attention. This sounds a little like “Yes, and,” but Andrew accentuated the role of curiosity in this practice. I think the lesson here is to not only listen or take in the input you receive but ask questions about it. Try to learn more and understand what you’ve been given more deeply, especially if it makes no sense to you or you disagree with it.

  • Wake up to the gifts. This seems like a continuation of the “pay attention” theme. I think it is. Andrew suggested that we give thanks. First, we have to dig deep enough to know what to give thanks for. Then we SHOULD give thanks. It makes the other person feel appreciated. It encourages further input by everyone involved. And it makes you happier, according to Baker and Stauth (What Happy People Know, St. Martin’s Griffith, New York: 2003).

  • Make mistakes, please. We all know that if we spend all our time avoiding mistakes, we will accomplish almost nothing. Andrew and improv ask us to take a risk. Andrew also suggested that we celebrate our mistakes. That sounds like “Every defect is a treasure…” attributed to Kichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota. Despite all the systems and statistical understanding that underlies our Six Sigma efforts, I find the culture in the U.S. continues to resist making mistakes. We still, somehow, need to find and punish the “guilty” person, without working to correct the problem and prevent its reccurrence…how pathetic.

  • Act now. Andrew reminded us that sometimes the action required is to do nothing. I agree. I am reminded of our early observations of the plan-do-study-act cycle. Some of us seemed to stay in the plan-study half of the cycle and others seemed to stay in the do-act half of the cycle. We can help others to understand they need to complete all four steps.

  • Take care of each other. This is a nice reminder to “Do no harm.” Dr. Deming taught us that we could get high quality without costing us money. Let us improve our operations without harming the people who are stakeholders of those operations.

  • Enjoy the ride. Andrew described this practice as play. Frequently, we forget to celebrate our successes. And I didn’t know something else that Andrew shared with us.

Andrew put this quote by Plato on the wall for us.

You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.

We asked Andrew to describe the essence of these principles and practices. He said “Yes, and” was the most important principle.

I think there’s a lot here that will help your Six Sigma effort. Take what makes sense to you and, if you are willing to, let me know what you think about these ideas. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.


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