Vol. 12, No. 4
April 2010
PQ Systems
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Six Sigma and more:
More about numbers from David Schwinn

A couple of months ago, I did a column on numbers and got enough responses to think it might be useful to continue my reflections. Here goes.

One of my respondents noticed that “Too often, I am stalled by a person’s retort that ‘I don’t do detail,’ or ‘I don’t do numbers.’” I don’t hear that much, but my observations of management behavior tell me that this is an all-too-common internal algorithm. Let me first repeat what I noted in my previous column. I don’t believe that most managers or other professionals are educated in analytic statistical studies, even if they have taken statistics in school. I see control charts in some management texts and in some statistics books, but, if they’re present at all, they are given hardly enough space to be noticed.

Looking back at my formal education, pre-Deming, control charts were there, but were given so little notice that I forgot all about them. So I think it is safe to assume that most professionals outside the Six Sigma or quality worlds have little or no appreciation of control charts…or, in many cases, even trend lines.

I think there’s probably another reason for the “I don’t…” phenomenon. The managers we deal with have probably been pretty successful without the numbers or the detail. When we’re successful, we have a tendency to think if what we’re doing is working, why change it? That phenomenon reminds me of one of my favorite stories about General Motors that I may have already shared.

I spent my undergraduate days at General Motors Institute (GMI), now Kettering University. At GMI, we alternately spent six weeks at work at some General Motors location and six weeks in classes at school. There were, therefore, two sections of students who hardly ever saw each other. I was in section B. Section B spent its first six weeks of GMI in a General Motors location, working. Many of us lived in fraternities, then, because GMI had no dorms. Because of the fraternities, we freshmen entered immediately into a large, relatively intimate, group of fellow students. Interestingly enough, we quickly found out that our diverse work experiences during the first six weeks had a common theme. We all noticed that no one seemed to work very hard at our work locations. We pondered, given that General Motors was, at that time, considered the biggest, most successful company in the world, how that could be.

Finally, upperclassman Mark Horvath shared his view with us. One doesn’t have to work hard, he said, because “You can depend on the stupidity of your competition.” The only real competition in those days was from Ford and Chrysler…and, in retrospect, that wasn’t much competition.  So if the competition does not consider numbers or details, we can probably get along very nicely based on luck.

As I consider this “don’t” tendency, I am also reminded of the work of Dr. Lawrence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle, among other books (William Morrow and Company, 1969). Dr. Peter noticed that we usually get promoted because we performed very well at the job which preceded the one we currently have. The problem with that selection process is, of course, that we are likely to need different skills in the job into which we just got promoted. Again, why change something that doesn’t seem broken? I don’t think continuous improvement is yet part of our cultural fabric. And the intelligent use of numbers certainly isn’t.

There are a couple of other barriers to the intelligent use of numbers by management that I have railed about in other columns, but I think they are worth repeating. The first is best captured by one of Russ Ackoff’s f-Laws, “Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure.” (Management f-Laws, Triarchy Press, 2007). My experience is that we tend to measure what is easy to measure, or may be relevant to some problem that is no longer relevant. Managers then pay a lot of attention to those numbers even if they don’t know what to do with them because they don’t know the difference between common and special cause variation and the actions that result from that analysis.

The last barrier comes as a result of money’s being our most common metric. I just pulled out six books on managerial accounting and finance at random. I found nothing on control charts and only one page on trend analysis, where it said trend analysis is a good idea and provided an example of looking at three years in a row instead of a more traditional year-to-year analysis. No wonder our accountants look askance when we ask about such things. As managers, we tend to accept the accounting reports as they come to us. In the larger organizations I have managed, I have all too frequently given up and just tried to analyze what was given me. When we were actively managing our own small company, we did get our accountant to change his reporting format, but I still had to do the control charts myself.

This all boils down to, I think, a very difficult problem. Many business decisions today are made based on very little understanding of how numbers work. I think we should change that. I think our decisions would improve. Let’s start a Knowledgeable Numbering movement! 

I remember when my wife, Carole, and I used to travel around the country advocating continuous improvement, and folks would ask how our own home institution, Jackson Community College (JCC), was doing. We would have to say “not so good” for a long time. But almost immediately after we received that question the first time, Carole embarked on her personal campaign of “mud on the president.” She persistently suggested to Clyde LeTarte, JCC’s president, reasons and methods for integrating continual improvement into the culture, strategy, and operations of JCC. She tried everything from talking, to writing proposals, to providing reading, to bringing in speakers. It finally worked and Clyde became one of the leaders in continuous improvement in the nation’s community college system.  A “mud on the president” approach may be risky. It worked for Carole because she had a wonderful relationship with Clyde and because, in retrospect, Clyde was a truly outstanding president. These are not common situations.

So let’s try a “mud on the world” approach to Knowledgeable Numbering. What do you say? I’m at support@pqsystems.com.


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